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Defense argues against death penalty for Parkland gunman, who already pleaded guilty

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today in Florida, lawyers for the gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School four years ago delivered their opening statement. They are arguing that their client should be spared the death penalty. Nikolas Cruz has already pleaded guilty to the murders. The jury will decide on his sentence, death or life in prison without parole. NPR's Greg Allen is at the courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. And, Greg, the Cruz trial has been going on for over a month. Why did it take until now for the defense to begin delivering its opening statement?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, you know, Ari, this is a very tough case for the defense because the facts really aren't in dispute at all here. In February of 2018, Nikolas Cruz, former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with a long history of behavioral problems, brought an AR-15-style rifle to the school and began shooting. At the trial, surveillance video was shown that showed him in the school, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others. The defense appears to have wanted to put some distance between all that and the emotion of the horrific nature of the prosecution case, put distance between that and their case.

In the first few weeks of the trial, the jury heard from students who were wounded and then survived. They described the horror of watching their classmates die in front of them. There was also graphic testimony by medical examiners about how each of the 17 victims died. But today, Cruz's defense attorney, Melissa McNeill, seemed to be trying to turn the page.

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MELISSA MCNEILL: Everyone here agrees that Nikolas deserves to be punished, without a doubt. But life without the possibility of parole is a severe enough penalty.

ALLEN: You know, in Florida, the jury must be unanimous in awarding the death penalty. Cruz's defense is hoping that they can convince at least one juror that life is the appropriate sentence here.

SHAPIRO: And how are defense attorneys making that case that Cruz should be spared the death penalty?

ALLEN: Well, under Florida law, jurors must weigh aggravating factors versus mitigating factors in deciding on the death penalty. The prosecution has laid out for the jury a host of reasons why they're asking for capital punishment, the fact that multiple murders were committed and that it was, in legal parlance, horrendous, atrocious or cruel or just two of the of the aggravating factors. But McNeill today told the jury she would also - she would begin presenting the other side, be telling them some of what she called the chapters of his life.

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MCNEILL: We will give you reasons for life. And that - that is called mitigation. Mitigation is any reason that you believe that the death penalty is not an appropriate penalty in this case.

ALLEN: McNeill said this isn't intended to justify or explain the attack in the 17 deaths, but it's to present a full picture of her client's troubled history.

SHAPIRO: So as that full picture begins to unfold, what do you expect the defense to say that might offset the horrific nature of these shootings?

ALLEN: Well, Cruz's defense is focusing a lot on the source of his problems. And they look at - looking at presenting two women, his birth mother and the woman who adopted him with - as infant, kind of pointing to them as the kind of source of some of these issues. Today, the jury heard testimony about Cruz's birth mother, who's now deceased. A former friend said she was a drug addict and an alcoholic who likely conceived him through her work as a prostitute. The defense says it'll present testimony and evidence that Cruz suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome.

Defense attorney Melissa McNeill detailed problems, first identified when Cruz was just 3 years old, that he was developmentally delayed, that he had communication and behavioral problems and that he needed a supportive, structured educational environment. McNeill said Cruz's adoptive mother for a time ignored her son's problems and the need for help. She also talked about disturbing drawings and threats of violence that Cruz continues to produce even now while he's in jail.

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MCNEILL: But his brain is broken. He's a damaged human being. And that's why these things happened.

ALLEN: Among those who testified today was Nikolas Cruz's sister, Danielle Woodard. She's a decade older than Cruz. And she painted a picture of a terrible childhood that she had and her mother's rampant drug and alcohol abuse when she was pregnant with with Nikolas Cruz.

SHAPIRO: What else do you expect the defense to present as this unfolds?

ALLEN: Well, we're going to likely hear from a series of witnesses, including family friends and expert witnesses. The defense will try to make the case that many people along the way, from Cruz's mother, through officials in the school district, ignored his problems. Another person expected to testify is Cruz's younger brother, Zachary. He's had his own history of troubles, including a run-in with police when he trespassed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the shooting. He's now living in Virginia. It's not really clear what he'll be saying, but we'll be hearing from that very soon.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Greg Allen speaking with us from in front of a courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Thank you, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.