FILE PHOTO: Ali Dangelo and her service dog, Strudel, attend a community commemoration event for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School victims at Pine Trails Park in Parkland, Florida on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. The event was held on the 4-year anniversary of the shooting and included therapy dogs on-site, a memory wall displaying photos of the victims, an area to write messages, a brief commemoration ceremony, a video honoring the victims and a drum circle.

Defense rests in Nikolas Cruz death-penalty trial

FILE PHOTO: Ali Dangelo and her service dog, Strudel, attend a community commemoration event for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School victims at Pine Trails Park in Parkland, Florida on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. The event was held on the 4-year anniversary of the shooting and included therapy dogs on-site, a memory wall displaying photos of the victims, an area to write messages, a brief commemoration ceremony, a video honoring the victims and a drum circle.

FILE PHOTO: Ali Dangelo and her service dog, Strudel, attend a community commemoration event for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School victims at Pine Trails Park in Parkland, Florida on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. The event was held on the 4-year anniversary of the shooting and included therapy dogs on-site, a memory wall displaying photos of the victims, an area to write messages, a brief commemoration ceremony, a video honoring the victims and a drum circle.

mocner@miamiherald.com

Defense attorneys for Nikolas Cruz, who is facing the death penalty for the February 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, on Wednesday made an unexpected announcement.

They will rest their case.

His lawyers announced in court that they had concluded their defense after 11 days and over 20 witnesses — the final one a nationally known fetal alcohol researcher who testified that Cruz’s birth mother drank heavily during her pregnancy with the future school shooter.

Cruz’s defense team earlier told the court that they would call 80 witnesses. The defense decision means after a state rebuttal case, jurors will soon be asked to begin deliberating whether Cruz should be executed for the rampage that killed 14 students and three staffers, and wounded 17 others.

Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty last fall, setting the stage for the “penalty phase” in which jurors will be asked to decide whether to send him to Death Row or sentence him to life in prison.

The defense’s decision to rest caught off guard prosecutors and Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who blasted the Public Defender’s Office for not letting her know in advance that no more witnesses would be called.

“I have never experienced this level of un-professionalism in my career. Its unbelievable,” Scherer said.

The abrupt ending to the defense case left the court scrambling to arrange a new schedule, and prosecutors needing to reach out to its final witnesses. Both sides agreed that the state’s rebuttal case will begin Sept. 27, with closing arguments and deliberations set the week starting Oct. 10.

The defense team officially rested in front of the jury late Wednesday morning, after the judge questioned Cruz and prosecutors read a list of defense witnesses who did not testify, to ensure he was OK with them not taking the stand.

“Are you comfortable with this decision?” the judge asked Cruz, who agreed he was.

Prosecutors concluded their case early last month, calling 91 witnesses that including traumatized student survivors, medical examiners who cataloged the ghastly bullet wounds to the murdered victims, and the shattered relatives of the dead. On the final day of the state’s case in chief, jurors also toured the site of the massacre, the freshman building still stained with blood, and littered with shattered glass and discarded Valentine’s Day cards and gifts.

In defending Cruz, the Broward Public Defender’s Office has focused on Cruz’s biological mother, Brenda Woodard, a troubled prostitute long beset by an addiction to crack cocaine and alcohol. Woodard gave Cruz up for adoption at birth, but by then, the damage to Cruz’s developing brain has been significant, defense experts has maintained.

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Danielle Woodard, the daughter of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz’s biological mom, Brenda Woodard, becomes emotional as she testifies in the penalty phase of Cruz’s trial at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022. Cruz previously pleaded guilty to all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings. Amy Beth Bennett South Florida Sun Sentinel

Cruz’s biological sister, Danielle Woodard, testified on Monday that as a young girl, she often saw her mother drinking while pregnant with her baby brother. “Nikolas was developing in her polluted womb,” Danielle Woodard told jurors.

Dr. Kenneth Jones, a leading researcher on damage caused to fetuses by prolonged alcohol use, told jurors on Tuesday that medical records revealed the defendant’s mother alarming habit while pregnant. He said he had “never seen so much alcohol consumed by a pregnant woman.”

Jones testified that fetal alcohol damage can cause temper tantrums, aggression and major behavioral issues. Defense witnesses have told jurors that Cruz was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, had problems with motor skills and focusing, lashed out and attacked fellow students as a young child, and tormented his widowed mother, destroying TVs and punching holes in walls along with his half-brother, Zachary.

Another defense expert, Paul Connor, a neuropsychologist, also testified on Monday about the severe effects of alcohol on a fetus and the development of a child.

His defense has also focused on system failures for Cruz, noting that despite his outbursts, he was not kept in a special school for at-risk children and was not committed for an involuntary psychiatric evaluation.

Under Florida law, the jury has to be unanimous in voting for the death penalty — meaning all the defense needs is one person to reject execution as punishment.

“In telling you Nikolas’ story, in telling you the chapters of his life, we will give you reasons for life,” Broward Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill told jurors during her opening statement last month.

This is a breaking news story that will be updated.

This story was originally published September 14, 2022 10:22 AM.

David Ovalle covers crime and courts in Miami. A native of San Diego, he graduated from the University of Southern California and joined the Herald in 2002 as a sports reporter.



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