Nikolas Cruz Trial - The Complete Story

Nikolas Cruz Trial - The Complete Story

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – In the penalty trial of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz, a defense mental health expert can pinpoint when he realized the 23-year-old mass murderer still has "irrational thoughts" — the two were making small talk when Cruz began describing plans for an eventual life outside prison.

Wesley Center, a Texas counselor, said that happened last year at the Broward County jail while he was fitting probes into Cruz's scalp for a scan to map his brain. The defense will try to persuade Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer this week that Center and other experts should be allowed to testify about what their tests revealed in Cruz's ongoing trial, something the prosecution wants barred.

"He had some sort of epiphany while he was in (jail) that would focus his thoughts on being able to help people," Center told prosecutors during a pretrial interview this year, according to transcripts. "His life's mission was to help others."

Of course, Cruz will never be free. Since his arrest on Feb. 14, 2018, about an hour after murdering 14 students and three staff members at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, there has never been any doubt that his remaining years would be spent behind bars, sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Surveillance video shows him mowing down his victims with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle, and he eventually confessed, pleading guilty in October.

Over three weeks, prosecutors made their case for death to the seven-man, five-woman jury and ten alternates, finally resting their case Aug. 4 after the panel toured the still-bloodstained, bullet-pocked classroom building where the massacre occurred.

The jurors were also shown graphic surveillance videos, gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos, emotional testimony from teachers and students who witnessed others die, and stories from tearful and angry parents, spouses, and other family members about the victims and how their loved one's death affected their lives. They saw video of the former Stoneman Douglas student calmly ordering an Icee minutes after the shooting and then attacking a jail guard nine months later.

Soon, Cruz's attorneys will argue why he should be spared, hoping to persuade at least one juror that their mitigating circumstances outweigh the prosecution's aggravating circumstances — a death sentence requires unanimous consent.

But first, the trial adjourned last week to allow some jurors to attend to personal matters. The jury will also be absent this week as the parties argue before Scherer, who will decide whether brain scans, tests, and other evidence presented by the defense beginning Aug. 22 is scientifically valid or junk, as the prosecution claims.

The Center's test and its findings will be hotly debated. A "quantitative electroencephalogram," or "qEEG," as its supporters refer to it, provides useful support to diagnoses such as fetal alcohol syndrome, which Cruz's attorneys claim caused his lifelong mental and emotional problems.

EEGs have been used in medicine for over a century to help doctors diagnose epilepsy and other brain disorders by measuring brainwaves. However, qEEG analysis, which has been around since the 1970s, takes it a step further by comparing a patient's EEG results to a database of brainwaves taken from normal or "neurotypical" people. While qEEG findings cannot be used to make a diagnosis, supporters argue that they can support findings based on the patient's history, examination, behavior, and other tests.

In his interview with prosecutors, Center stated that a "qEEG can confirm what you already know, but it cannot create new knowledge."

Emory University neurology professor Dr. Charles Epstein reviewed the Center's findings for the prosecution. In a written statement to Scherer, he stated that EEGs using only external scalp probes, such as the one given to Cruz, are imprecise, rendering the Center's qEEG results meaningless.

He wrote, "Garbage in, garbage out."

Since 2010, when the test helped a Miami-area man avoid the death penalty for fatally stabbing his wife and severely injuring her mentally disabled 11-year-old daughter, Florida judges have issued mixed verdicts on allowing qEEGs. Some judges have since allowed them to enter, while others have barred them. Scherer, who is presiding over her first death penalty trial, has never heard of a defense attempt to present a qEEG report.

Even if Scherer rules against the test, lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill and her team have evidence that Cruz's brain was likely damaged in the womb, including statements from his late birth mother that she abused alcohol and cocaine while pregnant.

They also have reports proving his mental illness by circumstantial evidence. Cruz was expelled from preschool for causing harm to other children. He spent a significant amount of time in a center for students with emotional issues during his years in public school. In addition, he received years of mental health treatment.

Then there's his personal situation. Cruz was bullied by his younger brother and his brother's friends; he was allegedly sexually abused by a "trusted peer;" he cut himself and abused animals; and his adoptive mother died less than four months before the shooting.

His youth will also be an issue; he was 19 at the time of the shooting.

According to attorneys who are not involved in the case, if Scherer wants to avoid having a potential death sentence overturned on appeal, she should give the defense broad leeway in what it presents so jurors can fully assess his life and mental health.

"If it's a close call, I think she'll bend to the defense — and the prosecution will be furious," said David S. Weinstein, a Miami criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor.

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