The attorney for Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz presented her opening statement to the jury on Monday, arguing for Cruz's life to be spared during the penalty phase of his trial.
The jury will determine if Cruz will be sentenced to death for shooting and killing 14 students and three staff members at his former South Florida school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, on Feb. 14, 2018. The jury's decision must be unanimous for the death penalty. Cruz pleaded guilty last year to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder.
Defense attorney Melisa McNeill said in her opening statement that Cruz is responsible for the massacre, adding that "there is no defense to these crimes."
However, she said, "We must understand the person behind the crime."
"Some people say that the crime itself is enough to impose sentence. You are not those people. Those people that said the sentence can be imposed based solely on the crime were excused [during jury selection]," she told the jurors. "Each one of you said that life without the possibility of parole could be a severe enough punishment for those crimes."
McNeill alleged that Cruz suffered lifelong developmental delays that traced back to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
Cruz's birth mother was a drug and alcohol addict who drank and used drugs up until six weeks before Cruz was born, McNeill said. Cruz was "poisoned in the womb" and his "brain was irretrievably broken," she said.
Cruz was adopted at birth by Linda Cruz, a 48-year-old Parkland woman. Cruz's adoptive father was 62 years old, McNeill said.
Nikolas Cruz saw a psychiatrist for the first time at age 3 and the doctor called him a challenging child, McNeill said.
The Broward County School Board classified Nikolas Cruz as "developmentally delayed in all areas" and said he had "a language impairment," McNeill noted. The district classified him as an "ESE" student, or a special needs child, she said.
"We don't excuse the horrific acts of damaged and wounded people -- we punish them," McNeill said. "But we take into consideration their damage when we impose sentence."
Victims' parents, including Fred Guttenberg and Max Schachter, sat in court as McNeill spoke.
In prosecutor Mike Satz's opening statement last month, he described the shooting as a "planned, systematic ... mass murder."
Satz said, "Three days before the massacre, Cruz made a video saying, 'My name is Nik. I'm going to be the next school shooter of 2018. My goal is at least 20 people with an AR-15 and some tracer rounds. It's gonna be a big event and when you see me on the news you'll know who I am. You're all gonna die. ... I can't wait.'"
The victims' families took the stand earlier this month to provide victim impact statements.
Dr. Ilan Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was among the 17 killed, said a piece of his heart was "ripped out of my damn chest."
"I get to watch my friends, my neighbors, colleagues, spend time enjoying their daughters, all the normal milestones," he said. "I can only watch videos or go to the cemetery to see my daughter."
"To me, it was yesterday," Ilan Alhadeff said of his daughter's death. "Alyssa will always be 14."