Nikolas Cruz sentencing live: Parkland shooter trial hears testimony from fetal alcohol syndrome expert

Parkland shooter’s disturbing courtroom drawings released

The sentencing trial for Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz resumed in court in Broward County, Florida, on Monday morning, following a one-week break.

Cruz, then aged 19, murdered 17 students and staff members in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day 2018.

Cruz, now 23, pleaded guilty in October 2021 to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder.

Jurors will now decide whether to sentence him to death or to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Prosecutors spent three weeks presenting graphic details of how Cruz plotted and carried out the attack, footage of him calmly going to a nearby Subway and McDonald’s in the immediate aftermath and heartbreaking testimony from the victims’ families.

The defence is continuing to present its case, where it is seeking to show that Cruz suffered from behavioural and developmental issues and endured a troubled upbringing – and did not receive the help he needed.

On Tuesday morning, prosecutors continued to cross-examine neuropsychologist Dr Paul Connor who testified on Monday that he had tested Cruz and found him to suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).

Key points

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Prosecutor grills FASD expert about what’s not in graph

The prosecutor continued to grill FASD expert Dr Connor about the results not featured in his graph of Nikolas Cruz’s results.

He pointed out several tests that Dr Connor carried out on Cruz, where the mass shooter scored within the average limits but which were not recorded in his graph of 11 domains.

Under redirect from the defence, Dr Connor explained that several of the scores the prosecutor asked about were subscores that formed part of an overall score for one of the 11 domains.

He also said that about 25 percent of the time that he tests for an FASD, he finds that the individual is not suffering from such disorder. However, he found that Cruz does.

Prosecutor Satz also questioned the neuropsychologist about whether, through his assessment, he had read police reports about Cruz’s case and viewed his social media. The expert said he had not.

He had seen surveillance footage of Cruz carrying out his attack but said he had no opinion about whether the video appeared to show the shooter was “goal directed” or “dedicated to his task”, because it did not form part of his assessment.

Rachel Sharp13 September 2022 15:57


Cross-examination of Dr Connor

The prosecutor resumed the cross-examination of Dr Connor by asking him the agreed question about not recording his interview with Cruz.

“Are you aware according to Florida law that the state was required to videotape their expert examinations?”

Dr Connor said that he knew the state experts were being observed but said that he didn’t remember whether he was aware they had been videotaped.

The neuropsychologist interviewed Cruz for around 5.5 hours in one session. He testified on Monday that his assessment found that Cruz suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), caused by his biological mother abusing alcohol when she was pregnant.

Out of 11 domains of neuropsychological testing, Cruz had deficits in nine, he found. If an individual has deficits in three domains, it is consistent with them having an FASD.

Lead prosecutor Mike Satz sought to pick holes in the testing and the results of the testing carried out by the neuropsychologist.

He questioned whether the neuropsychologist tested for malingering – where the subject fakes their test responses. Dr Connor said that he performed a performance validity test which can assess for malingering.

Mr Satz went on to tell Dr Connor that to get onto the Marjory Stoneman JRTOC team the individual had to successfully strike a target the size of a quarter from 10 metres away. When successful, the target becomes smaller, he said.

Cruz was accepted onto the team and won a sharp shooter badge, he said.

The prosecutor asked if that showed good visual spatial skills. Dr Connor said it did not. His assessment of Cruz had found that the mass shooter had deficits in visual spatial skills.

Rachel Sharp13 September 2022 15:30


Day 23 court session begins

Day 23 of the sentencing trial has resumed in court in Broward County.

Before jurors entered the courtroom, the judge heard arguments from the defence and the prosecution about a question the state asked Dr Paul Connor under cross-examination.

On Monday afternoon, the prosecutor had questioned the neuropsychologist – who was hired to assess Cruz to see if he suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome disorders – about why he had not recorded his interviews with Cruz.

The defence objected saying that it is not required in the state of Florida, to which prosecutors claimed that there had been a pretrial agreement to do so between the two sides.

The court session concluded early as the judge said that she would need to go away and look at the details.

On Tuesday morning, prosecutors told the judge that both sides had agreed to videotape their experts assessing Cruz.

Judge Elizabeth Scherer ruled that the prosecution could ask Dr Connor: “Are you aware according to Florida law that the state was required to videotape their expert examinations?”

Rachel Sharp13 September 2022 15:01


RECAP: What happened on Monday

Monday’s session got off to a slow start as the defence and prosecution wrestled over the slides that a defence witness would be presenting in court.

At issue were statements made by Cruz’s biological mother Brenda Woodard, prior to her death.

Dr Paul Connor was then called to the stand, with the day focusing on the defence’s argument that Cruz suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) because Woodard abused alcohol when she was pregnant.

The neuropsychologist said that official birth and adoption records and testimony from prior witnesses show that Cruz was exposed to alcohol in the womb.

Dr Connor explained that alcohol exposure in the womb can lead to poor motor skills, lack of social skills and impulse control.

He told the court that he carried out neuropsychological testing on Cruz, which found that he has an FASD.

Out of 11 domains of neuropsychological testing, Cruz had deficits in nine, he found.

These domains are: IQ, academic, memory, visual/spatial, attention, processing speed, motor skills, executive functioning, suggestability, direct adaptive function and informant adaptive function.

The FASD expert said that if an individual has three or more domains, that is consistent with them having an FASD.

Rachel Sharp13 September 2022 14:00


Nikolas Cruz had a horror start to life but does it matter in trial?

It began before he was even born: Nikolas Cruz’s biological mother drank alcohol and abused drugs while he was still in the womb.

At the age of five, his adoptive father suddenly collapsed and died in front of him in the family home. In his teenage years, he was allegedly bullied by his brother and sexually abused by a so-called “trusted peer”. At 19, he became an orphan when his adoptive mother died from pneumonia.

And just three months later, he murdered 17 innocent students and staff in a shooting rampage at his former high school.

“Without any one of those problems, it may never have happened,” Abigail Marsh, professor in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at Georgetown University, tells The Independent.

“For any given person there is a causal explanation, a link… and, on average, people who become mass shooters or are very violent have had these experiences or risk factors. There’s no one thing that you can say that is the reason but, together, a perfect storm of risk factors can give the means, motive and opportunity.”

These so-called risk factors have all come into focus in recent weeks as Cruz’s team of public defenders tries to convince a jury of his peers that his life should be spared.

The Independent’s Rachel Sharp details what jurors have learned about Cruz’s start in life and speaks to a psychologist and criminal defence attorney about what impact this truly had on him committing his crime and whether or not it will make any difference in the eyes of the jury:

Rachel Sharp13 September 2022 13:00


Who was the Parkland shooter’s biological mother Brenda Woodard?

At the centre of the defence’s case is the argument that Nikolas Cruz is mentally ill and that his troubled origins are to blame for his actions – which saw him lay siege to his former school with a legally-purchased AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle in one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history.

During opening statements and testimony from several witnesses called to the stand, much of the blame for his troubled start in life was placed squarely on the shoulders of his biological mother Brenda Woodard.

Lead public defender Melisa McNeill told jurors that while “there is no defence for this crime” and Cruz is the “one person responsible for all the pain and suffering”, the “choices” Woodard made when she “poisoned him in the womb” led to the “choices” her son made back on 14 February 2018.

Rachel Sharp13 September 2022 12:00


What are fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD)?

One of the key parts of the defence’s argument is that he suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) caused by his biological mother abusing alcohol and drugs while pregnant.

FASDs are conditions caused by an individual being exposed to alcohol in the womb before birth.

According to the CDC, alcohol is passed from the mother’s blood to the baby via the umbilical cord.

It is surprisingly common, occurring in up to 1 in every 20 people, according to FASD United.

The effects of FASD can vary but typically include both physical problems and behavioural and learning problems.

Signs and symptoms include: learning disabilities, small head size, hyperactive behaviour, poor reasoning and judgment skills, difficulty in school and intellectual disability, among other things.

The Independent’s Rachel Sharp has the full story:

Rachel Sharp13 September 2022 11:00


ICYMI: Ron DeSantis ousts school board members

Governor Ron DeSantis ousted four elected members of a school board in Florida over a damning grand jury report into the Valentine’s Day 2018 mass shooting in Parkland.

The governor filed an executive order in late August suspending Patricia Good, Donna Korn, Ann Murray and Laurie Rich Levinson from Broward County School Board with immediate effect, accusing them of fraud and mismanagement.

“It is my duty to suspend people from office when there is clear evidence of incompetence, neglect of duty, misfeasance or malfeasance,” he said in a press release announcing the suspensions.

Mr DeSantis said that the move marks a “step towards justice” for the Parkland community and is “in the best interest of the residents and students of Broward County and all citizens of Florida”.

The statewide grand jury released its long-awaited report into the Parkland mass shooting on Friday, finding that the four officials displayed “deceit, malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty and incompetence” in their handling of a campus safety program.

Its investigation into the events surrounding that day found that a simple safety alarm could have saved lives but that it hadn’t been installed at the high school as of 14 February 2018.

Even now, more than four years on, the grand jury found that the alarms continue to be uninstalled at many schools across the county.

Ms Levinson, the board’s chairwoman, condemned the report calling it a “political hatchet job” orchestrated by Mr DeSantis.

Rachel Sharp13 September 2022 10:00


Missed warning signs: What went wrong at Parkland

Almost 70 documented incidents of violence by age 19. Boasts online of being “the next school shooter”. Tips about threatening behaviour ignored by the FBI. Unlocked and unmanned gates at the school. Students and staff left to wander hallways while no active shooter alert was made. A school resource officer who hid from the gunfire for more than 45 minutes.

Nearly everything that could have gone wrong that day did.

While the survivors and families of the victims have waited more than four years for their day in court, some changes in gun laws and school safety measures have come more quickly.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, launched in the aftermath to investigate both the shooting and the response to it, made several recommendations of what must change going forwards.

The investigation found that there were catastrophic errors in the response to Cruz’s actions that day.

And, ahead of the day itself, a whole host of disturbing warning signs had also been ignored about what Cruz would go on to do.

The Independent’s Rachel Sharp has the full story:

Rachel Sharp13 September 2022 08:00


A timeline of the Parkland massacre

Nikolas Cruz, the man convicted of shooting dead 17 people and injuring 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on 14 February 2018, is now facing a sentencing trial for his crimes.

Cruz – a former student at the institution who was a member of its air rifle team and had a lengthy disciplinary record – was just 19 when he arrived that day in an Uber bearing a legally-purchased AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and gunned down 14 students and three members of staff in what proved to be one of the deadliest school massacres in American history.

He was arrested later that day by police and pleaded guilty to 17 charges of first-degree murder and 17 of attempted murder, his actions sparking a nationwide protest movement demanding tighter gun control measures and an unsavoury political debate in which survivors of the attack including David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez were accused of being paid “crisis actors” by conspiracy-minded members of the right-wing commentariat.

The Independent’s Joe Sommerlad has the full details:

Rachel Sharp13 September 2022 06:00

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