Nikolas Cruz, the gunman convicted of killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day 2018, is currently being sentenced for the massacre and could face the death penalty.
On Monday, the 23-year-old’s defence team began its case to try to convince the jury in Broward County to sentence him to life in prison instead of death.
At the centre of their case is the argument that he 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 the first defence 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.
Witnesses and official records have revealed that Woodard drank heavily and abused drugs while pregnant with Cruz.
Ms McNeill told the court that Cruz was left with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder because of his mother’s drinking and drugtaking.
“His brain is broken. He is a damaged human being,” said the attorney.
“His prenatal vitamins consisted of… Bum wine, crack cocaine and cigarettes. Because of that his brain is irretrievably broken.”
She added: “At the time she gave her baby up she was living on the streets, drinking, drugging, selling her body.”
Who was Brenda Woodard?
Cruz’s birth mother had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse and a long rap sheet dating back to at least the 1980s.
She had three children: Danielle Woodard, who grew up with her mother; then Cruz, who was adopted by Roger and Lynda Cruz as a baby; and then Zachary, who was also adopted by the Cruz family and grew up with his biological brother.
When she fell pregnant with Cruz, Woodard was homeless, an alcoholic, a drug addict and working as a prostitute.
She will not be testifying at her son’s trial. She died from cancer last year at the age of 65.
Danielle testified at Cruz’s trial on Monday where she admitted that she “hated” her mother.
She told the court how she lived on and off with Woodard growing up and was placed in foster care at the age of 12.
An undated photograph of Brenda Woodard, the biological mother of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz, shown in court
She recalled the moment she learned her mother was pregnant with Cruz in 1998, when her mother picked her up in her car in Fort Lauderdale and she spotted her baby bump.
“She looked at me, and said, ‘I got raped,’ and she took another swig [of Cisco wine], turned up the radio,” Danielle testified.
“Nikolas was developing in her polluted womb,” she said.
Danielle also recounted other experiences with her mother – who she would only refer to as Brenda – including times she smuggled clean urine to pass probation drug tests and fraternised with “junkies”.
One time, she allegedly forced her own mother – Danielle’s grandmother – to strip naked so that she could search her for concealed drug money.
Danielle and a second defence witness Carolyn Deakins both testified that they saw Woodard take drugs and drink alcohol while pregnant with Cruz.
Ms Deakins said that she first met Ms Woodard in the early 90s when they were both working as prostitutes and drank and took drugs including crack cocaine together.
She said that she saw Ms Woodard continue to take drugs, drink alcohol and smoke while pregnant, saying that her onetime friend “didn’t care about anything” other than her addictions.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz in court with his legal team
“Drugs, alcohol, weed, cigarettes… anything she could get her hands on,” she said.
Ms Deakins was Woodard’s codefendant during one of her multiple arrests.
It was 6 June 1998 and the two women were arrested together for possession of crack cocaine. Cruz was born three months later on 24 September 1998.
In total, court and prison records show that Woodard was arrested more than two dozen times from the 1980s through to the 2000s on a string of charges including domestic violence, drug offences, car theft, weapons possession and burglary.
She was in and out of prison multiple times including one 18-month sentence for car theft and fleeing from a police officer.
In 2010, she was then charged with beating someone with a tire iron.
What impact did Woodard have on her children?
Danielle testified about the impact her mother had on her own life.
“In many ways, she just introduced me to a life that no child should ever be introduced to,” Danielle said.
She told the court she herself has been in prison multiple times and has been convicted of 16 felonies. She is currently awaiting trial on charges of carjacking an elderly woman.
When asked how Woodard was as a mother to her, she smirked and then fell silent. Finally, she just said “horrible”.
However as prosecutors pointed out, while Danielle grew up with Woodard, Cruz did not.
Danielle Woodard testifies in court at her biological brother’s trial
Having been given up by Woodard, Cruz was adopted by Lynda and Roger in 1998, as was his biological brother Zachary, the couple raising both boys together.
But Cruz began to exhibit signs of disturbing behaviour from the age of three when he first encountered other children, according to Ms McNeill, who said he was subsequently given psychiatric help and diagnosed with antisocial personality disorders.
“He was seeing a psychiatrist. He was seeing a clinical psychologist. He had a case manager. In-home services. However he continued to struggle with behavioural issues and academic issues,” she explained.
Cruz went on to attend multiple schools, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas, where he had been a member of its air rifle team but compiled a long disciplinary record.
Adding to the instability in his life, his adoptive father Roger passed away from a heart condition in August 2004, aged just 67, and his adoptive mother, Lynda, died at 68 in November 2017, just three months before the high school massacre took place.
That left Cruz an orphan, living with kindly relatives and friends, attending an adult education centre and working at a local branch of Dollar Tree to make ends meet.
In appealing for compassion, Ms McNeill said the defendant continues today to exhibit disturbing obsessions with “video games, guns, exercise, bowel movements, vegan diets and, most recently, demons and Satan”, insisting his behaviour has its roots in his birth mother’s chaotic and criminal lifestyle and that he needs institutional help.
Assistant Public Defender Tamara Curtis carries photographs of Brenda Woodard in court on Monday
Prosecutors pointed out the differences in the upbringings of Cruz and Danielle.
“Your mom wasn’t taking you to a psychiatrist? She wasn’t picking up any prescriptions you might need?… You weren’t staying on a 4500 square foot home… with a jacuzzi and a basketball court?” asked the prosecutor.
Woodard confirmed no and described that lifestyle as “a dream” to her.
Later in life
Cruz briefly reunited with Woodard on a Zoom call from prison prior to her death last year, according to The Daily Mail.
But – even then – his birth mother is said to have refused to accept any responsibility for his actions.
Doug Clark, Woodard’s close friend, told the newspaper: “We watched the shooting on the news. Brenda had no idea at the time it was her son. She didn’t know him, she didn’t know anything about him.
“When the lawyers came here to talk to her she was shocked, she was upset. If she didn’t care, she would not have agreed to talk to him on the video.”
Mr Clark said that his friend had made efforts to kick her drink and drug problems in later life and taken part in rehabilitation programmes, while court documents indicate that she held jobs at Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma and The Fresh Market.
“I liked Brenda and I will miss her a lot,” Mr Clark added.
“But she’s better off where she is now. The woman was in a lot of pain.”