Florida school shooting trial: psychologist says Parkland shooter suffered fetal alcohol damage

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Attorneys for Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz began building their case Monday that his birth mother’s alcohol abuse left him with severe behavioral problems that eventually led to his 2018 murder of 17 people at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Paul Connor, a Seattle-area neuropsychologist, said medical records and testimony by prior witnesses show that Brenda Woodard drank and used cocaine throughout much of her pregnancy before Cruz’s birth in 1998. Woodard, a Fort Lauderdale prostitute, gave up the baby immediately after to his adoptive parents, Lynda and Roger Cruz. Woodard died last year.

Connor, testifying by Zoom, told jurors that people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder show at a young age problems with motor skills, impulse control, socializing and paying attention — problems previous defense testimony showed Cruz had.

Cruz’s preschool teachers testified he couldn’t use utensils or run without falling. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as a young child and teachers testified that he was extremely anxious and had trouble making friends. He would have frequent outbursts in class and at home, school records and testimony show. By middle school, he was making threats.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz is shown at the defense table during the penalty phase of Cruz's trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Cruz pleaded guilty to murdering 17 students and staff members in 2018 at Parkland's high school. The trial is only to determine if the 23-year-old is sentenced to death or life without parole. 

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz is shown at the defense table during the penalty phase of Cruz’s trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Cruz pleaded guilty to murdering 17 students and staff members in 2018 at Parkland’s high school. The trial is only to determine if the 23-year-old is sentenced to death or life without parole.  (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool)

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Connor said he measured Cruz’s IQ at 83, which he said matches the slightly below average intelligence many people with fetal alcohol issues often score.

Connor will resume his testimony Monday afternoon and then undergo cross-examination by the prosecution.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz, center, stands with members of his defense team as the jury enters the courtroom during the penalty phase of his trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Cruz pleaded guilty to murdering 17 students and staff members in 2018 at Parkland's high school. The trial is only to determine if the 23-year-old is sentenced to death or life without parole. 

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz, center, stands with members of his defense team as the jury enters the courtroom during the penalty phase of his trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Cruz pleaded guilty to murdering 17 students and staff members in 2018 at Parkland’s high school. The trial is only to determine if the 23-year-old is sentenced to death or life without parole.  (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool)

Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to murdering 14 students and three staff members and wounding 17 others as he stalked a three-story classroom building with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle on Valentine’s Day 2018. His trial is only to decide whether the former Stoneman Douglas student is sentenced to death or life without parole. For the seven-man, five-woman jury to impose a death sentence, the vote must be unanimous.

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Lead prosecutor Mike Satz finished his primary case last month. He played security videos of the shooting and showed the rifle Cruz used. Teachers and students testified about watching others die. He showed graphic autopsy and crime scene photos and took jurors to the fenced-off building, which remains blood-stained and bullet-pocked. Parents and spouses gave tearful and angry statements about their loss.

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In an attempt to counter that, assistant public defender Melisa McNeill and her team have made Cruz’s history their case’s centerpiece, hoping at least one juror will vote for life.

After the defense concludes its case in the coming weeks, the prosecution will present a rebuttal case before the jury’s deliberations begin.