How Nikolas Cruz’s defense convinced a jury to spare his life


In opening statements in Nikolas Cruz’s death penalty trial, his defense outlined a plan to convince jurors to spare his life. They planned to present him as disturbed and mentally ill.

“In telling Nik’s story, in telling the chapters of his life, we will give you reasons to live,” public defender Melisa McNeill said in opening statements. “That’s called mitigation. Mitigation is any reason you believe the death penalty is not the appropriate punishment in this case.”

And on Thursday, after a month of harrowing evidence and tearful testimony, the jury recommended a prison term without parole over the death penalty, to the shock of many of the victims’ families.

A death sentence must be unanimous, so the defense only had to convince at least one of the 12 jurors in its favor. Parkland Juror Benjamin Thomas told CNN affiliate WFOR that three jurors voted against the death penalty.

“There was one with a resounding ‘no’, he couldn’t do it, and there were two others who ended up voting the same way,” he said. “(Not tough) didn’t believe that because he was mentally ill, he should receive the death penalty.”

There are signs of tension behind the scenes in the jury room.

He heard a juror wrote a letter to the judge on Thursday, calling the deliberations “tense” and denying an allegation that he had decided to accept a life sentence before the trial began.

And prosecutors are asking law enforcement to interview a juror who said he felt threatened by another juror during deliberations, according to a court transcript obtained by CNN.

The jury instructions listed 41 potential mitigating factors that the jury could consider, and returned to some of these defenses repeatedly.

These mitigating circumstances fall into a few main categories: that Cruz pleaded guilty; that his mother “poisoned” him in the womb due to the use of drugs and alcohol; and that the death penalty, at least for Cruz, is immoral and unnecessary.

Here are the defense’s main arguments throughout the trial and how the jury won them over.

Defense attorneys first noted that Cruz admitted to the murders and pleaded guilty to 34 counts last October.

“All of you sitting here and in this courtroom know that one person is responsible for all that pain and all that suffering,” McNeill said at the start of opening statements in August. “And that person is Nikolas Cruz.

“On October 21, 2021, Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty to all charges. When he did so, he ensured that he would be punished. Now the question that remains for each of you is how he will be punished.”

The decision to plead guilty came without the government agreeing to a lighter sentence. Other defendants accused of heinous crimes, such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the racist shooting at a Black church in South Carolina, were found not guilty and sentenced to death.

During the trial phase of Cruz’s trial, the prosecution spoke in detail about Cruz’s actions on the day of the shooting. In response, McNeill tried to nullify their argument by implicating Cruz’s guilt.

“We never said he didn’t do that. He never said he didn’t do that,” he said. “What he did has never been in dispute. This stage of the trial of the proceedings is not to take care of the accounts.’

The defense’s main factual argument was that Cruz had mental health and developmental issues because his birth mother used alcohol and drugs during her pregnancy.

“Nicolas was bombarded by all these things, he was poisoned in the stomach. Because of this, his brain was irreparably broken, through no fault of his own,” McNeill said in opening statements.

The first two defense witnesses testified that Brenda Woodard, Cruz’s birth mother, used drugs and alcohol while pregnant. Carolyn Deakins, a recovering addict who used drugs, drank and worked as a prostitute with Woodard in the 1990s, testified that Woodard did not care for the grown child and used all his resources to buy drugs and alcohol.

Danielle Woodard, Cruz’s sister, testified that her mother abused drugs and alcohol throughout her childhood, creating a hostile environment for the children.

“He was addicted. He always put that first, before me, or him, or Zach (Cruz) or anybody,” he said.

Brenda Woodard, who died last year, gave Cruz up for adoption when he was born in 1998.

As a child, Cruz suffered from developmental delays and emotional and behavioral problems associated with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the defense argued. Several defense witnesses, including two medical experts, disagreed with her exact diagnosis, but said it was related to her mother’s alcohol use during pregnancy, which her mother admitted to drinking on her birth certificates.

“I’ve never in my life seen a person with prenatal alcohol exposure where there’s documentation, and I think there’s pretty good documentation of alcohol exposure,” he testified. Dr. Kenneth Lyons Jones, a leading voice in alcohol-related neurological disorders. “I know I’ve never seen a pregnant woman consume so much alcohol.”

In closing arguments, the defense said he was “doomed from the womb” for his mother’s actions.

“There is no place in our lives when we are more vulnerable to the whims and caprices of another human being than when we are growing and developing in the womb,” McNeill said.

Prosecutors asked the jury to sentence the juror to death, arguing that Cruz’s decision to shoot was not particularly heinous or cruel, but premeditated and calculated, linked to what the defense says are neurological or intellectual deficiencies.

In a death penalty trial, all jurors are “death competent,” meaning they must be open to imposing the death penalty in order to serve on the jury. This means that people who are completely against the death penalty cannot carry it out.

However, many of the defense’s arguments attempted to appeal to the jury’s moral qualms with the death penalty.

The defense argued that a sentence of life in prison without parole is sufficient to protect the public. They also argued that Cruz is under the care of a psychologist and psychiatrist, is compliant with his medication and has the ability to succeed in a structured, supervised environment such as prison, according to jury instructions.

“And in a civilized human society, do we kill brain damaged, mentally ill and broken people?” McNeill asked Tuesday. “We? I hope not.”

In closing arguments, McNeill said the prosecution was trying to infuriate and excite the jury by playing gruesome video and audio of the shootings. Instead, it inspired them to take a breath, open their hearts and minds, and make a moral decision for compassion.

“In a death penalty proceeding, you have to use your heart because you’re making an individualized moral decision,” he said.

In fact, the brother of one of the victims told CNN last week that he did not support Cruz’s death penalty because of his immorality.

“Logically, it doesn’t make sense to me to say, ‘Killing someone is a terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible thing, and to prove that point, we’re going to do it to someone else,'” he said. Robert Schentrup, his 16-year-old sister Carmen was among the dead.

“And I understood that if it’s something that I thought should be applied to my personal case and beyond,” he said. “I had to dig deep into my values ​​and say, is this something that is connected to that? And if so, live it.”