FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Attorneys for Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz reversed course Wednesday and said they will not present at his ongoing penalty trial results of a highly contentious brain exam they had said supports their contention that the mass murderer suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome.
Cruz attorney Casey Secor told Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that they will not show jurors the controversial “quantitative electroencephalogram” or qEEG tests Cruz was given last year. The exam’s backers say it provides useful support to such diagnoses as fetal alcohol syndrome, which Cruz’s attorneys contend helped create his lifelong mental and emotional problems. Prosecutors and critics say the test is unproven or even junk.
“We are not relying on those types of scans and comparisons,” Secor told the judge. He did not explain the decision.
Cruz’s attorneys say fetal alcohol syndrome is one factor that led to his Feb. 14, 2018, attack at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 14 students and three staff members dead. The sides had been poised to argue about the qEEG results before Scherer this week without the jury present in advance of the defense beginning its case Monday with his attorneys’ opening statement.
Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of first-degree murder — the trial is to decide only whether the former Stoneman Douglas student is sentenced to death or life without parole.
The qEEG exam is an extension of electroencephalogram or EEGs, which have been common in medicine for a century. Brainwaves are measured to help doctors diagnose epilepsy and other brain ailments.
But the qEEG analysis, which has been around since the 1970s, goes a step further: A patient’s EEG results are compared to a database of brainwaves taken from normal or “neurotypical” people. Although qEEG findings cannot be used to make a diagnosis, they can support findings based on the patient’s history, examination, behavior and other tests, supporters contend.
Cruz’s prosecutors and other critics say the tests have never been proven to be valid and two exams on the same person can have widely different results. That’s what happened with Cruz.
The defense will still have evidence about Cruz’s troubled life and emotional and mental problems that they can present to the seven-man, five-woman jury and 10 alternates.
Lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill and her team will try to persuade at least one juror that the mitigating circumstances of Cruz’s life outweigh the aggravating factors prosecutors presented during their case, which began July 18 and rested Aug. 4. A vote for death must be unanimous, or else Cruz gets life. A juror also can vote for life out of mercy for Cruz.
They have statements by his late birth mother that she abused alcohol and cocaine during pregnancy. They also have reports giving circumstantial evidence of his mental illness. Cruz got kicked out of preschool for hurting other children. During his years in public school, he spent significant time at a center for students with emotional issues. He also received years of mental health treatment.
Then there are his life circumstances. Cruz’s adoptive father died in front of him when he was 5; he was bullied by his younger brother and his brother’s friends; he was allegedly abused sexually 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 when the shooting happened.
The defense will be trying to overcome the horrendous evidence that was laid out by the prosecution, capped by the jurors’ Aug. 4 visit to the three-story building that Cruz stalked with his AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle for seven minutes, firing about 150 shots down halls and into classrooms. The jurors saw dried blood on floors and walls, bullet holes in doors and windows, and remnants of Valentine’s Day balloons, flowers and cards.
Prosecutors also presented graphic surveillance videos of the massacre; gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos from its aftermath; emotional testimony from teachers and students who witnessed others die; and four days of tearful and angry statements from parents, spouses and other family members about the victims and how their loved one’s deaths affected their lives. Jurors also watched video of Cruz calmly ordering an Icee minutes after the shooting and, nine months later, attacking a jail guard.