FORT LAUDERDALE - Jurors returned to a Fort Lauderdale courtroom this week to hear the Parkland shooter's defense in favor of life in prison.
Two expert witnesses testified Tuesday that Nikolas Cruz suffered severe brain damage as a result of his biological mother's alcohol abuse, echoing a slew of others called to testify before them.
Cruz pleaded guilty in 2021 to killing 17 people and wounding 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
The 12-person jury will recommend whether Cruz, then 19 and now 23, is put to death or sentenced to life in prison. If it recommends death, a move that must be unanimous, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer will make the final ruling likely sometime this fall.
The Palm Beach Post is covering the daily proceedings live. Follow below for updates throughout Tuesday, Sept. 13.
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Mother's substance abuse and poor prenatal care hurt Cruz in the womb, witness says
Cruz's team of public defenders called on Dr. Kenneth Jones last year to assess whether the Parkland shooter has alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, or ARND.
Jones testified Tuesday that Cruz meets the cognitive criteria for such a diagnosis "without any question," pointing to his impaired executive function, memory and visual spatial processing. People who aren't cognitively impaired can still be diagnosed with ARND if they have serious mood and behavioral problems, Jones said, which Cruz "clearly" exhibits as well.
The doctor told jurors that it doesn't take a lot of alcohol to cause problems in the womb. Six drinks over two sittings could do it, he said, and Cruz's late biological mother, Brenda Woodard, was known to abuse beer, wine and crack cocaine regularly throughout the beginning of her pregnancy.
"I have never seen so much alcohol consumed by a pregnant woman," Jones said.
Previous live coverage: Nikolas Cruz sentencing trial live updates: Witness says Parkland school shooter has IQ of 83
He called it the "most severe pattern of alcohol consumption" he's seen while studying fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Other drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine, can also affect the developing fetus, but none has as great an impact as alcohol.
"You can take all of the illicit drugs you can think of - heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine - wrap them up in a single bag, and they don't hold a candle to alcohol in terms of its effect on the developing baby," Jones said.
In addition to rampant substance abuse, Woodard's pregnancy was marked by "really very poor" prenatal care, Jones said. He found evidence of just four visits to the doctor over the course of her pregnancy - the first when she was two-months pregnant, and the second when she was six-months pregnant.
By the second visit, Woodard had actually lost weight, Jones said. The size of the fetus hadn't grown over that time period, either.
"Her nutritional status was horrible," Jones said. "I think it's quite likely related to the alcohol exposure."
Doctor describes effects of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder on Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz
Paul Connor, a Washington-based neuropsychologist, returned to the witness stand Tuesday to testify about the effects of Brenda Woodard's alcohol abuse on Cruz.
Connor told jurors Monday that the gunman suffered brain damage as a result of his birth mother's substance abuse, and that his full-scale intelligence quotient, or IQ, is an 83. The average person has an IQ of 100, and someone with fetal alcohol syndrome averages a 90 IQ.
Lead prosecutor Michael Satz asked Tuesday if Cruz could have faked his low test score, which Connor said was unlikely. Satz recalled the surveillance video of Cruz shooting methodically into Stoneman Douglas classrooms.
"You saw how purposeful his actions were?" the prosecutor asked. Was he not goal directed, dedicated to his task?
"I have no opinion about that," Connor said.
Hannah Phillips is a journalist covering public safety and criminal justice at The Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Parkland shooter trial: Mom's alcohol abuse central to Nikolas Cruz defense