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Sparing the Parkland Shooter: Lessons From a Challenging Case

A Fort Lauderdale jury declined to sentence Nikolas Cruz to death.

Key points

  • A jury recently spared the life of Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland school shooter, despite his having killed 17 people.
  • Several lessons can be taken from this tragic case, including the need to take warnings of violence more seriously.
  • Another key lesson is the need for mental health professionals to become more knowledgeable about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

On February 14, 2018, in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Parkland, Florida, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz carried an assault rifle into a building on the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, from which he had recently been expelled for misbehavior.

He methodically moved through the building for over six minutes, shooting 34 people (some multiple times) and killing 17, 14 of them students. He threw down his weapon and walked towards a nearby town, where he was arrested an hour later.

In 2021 Cruz pled guilty, his lawyers hoping that a life sentence would be granted. But the state continued to pursue a death sentence and an unusual penalty proceeding ensued. What made it unusual is that such a proceeding typically follows a few days after a guilt trial, and before the same jury that issued a guilty verdict.

In a more traditional proceeding, it would be unnecessary to go through the crime evidence, as the jury would have already heard it all. In the Cruz penalty proceeding, it was necessary to present all the evidence relating to the crimes (including autopsy photos and highly emotional family testimony), as one of the jury’s tasks in a penalty hearing is to consider the relative heinousness of an offender’s actions.

Unlike the usual week or two devoted to a penalty trial, the Cruz proceeding took three months. It started in July 2022 and finished in October when three of the 12 jurors voted against the death penalty, thus denying the unanimity required for a death sentence in Florida. The hearing was preceded by several weeks spent picking a jury, a difficult task given the notoriety of the case.

I did not testify in the case, but I did meet Nikolas Cruz and I was told that I might testify as an expert witness in a subsequent proceeding if the jury voted in favor of death. I believe there are some important lessons to emerge from this case, and in the balance of this post, I will explain briefly what those are.

1. Take Warnings More Seriously

In a meeting of school security staff in the year before the tragedy, it was mentioned that if the school ever experienced a shooting, the likely shooter would be Nikolas Cruz. He was known to have a collection of guns and did not keep his violent intentions secret.

Several warnings were made to state and federal authorities, but no action ever occurred. The most specific warning was made a short while before the tragedy by the gun dealer who sold Cruz the assault rifle used in the crimes. The dealer contacted the FBI and told them when he asked Cruz what he planned to do with the rifle, the reply was, “I plan to be the next school shooter.” The FBI, which wrote the manual on how to deal with such warnings, later cut a check for $127.5 million to compensate family members and survivors for its egregious failure to act on that and an earlier credible warning.

2. Monitor Private Adoptions Better

Although it is illegal to buy and sell babies, Cruz’s adoptive parents (who were considered too old to adopt through an agency) appear to have gotten around that by giving $40,000 to an attorney, who passed much of that on to Cruz’s biological mother for living expenses during her pregnancy.

The woman, an extreme alcoholic, used the money to be in a constant state of drunkenness during the entirety of her pregnancy. Kenneth Lyons Jones, the M.D. who co-discovered fetal alcohol syndrome in 1973, testified that he had never seen a pregnancy so affected by prenatal alcohol ingestion. (My main contribution to the case was, in fact, to urge Cruz’s attorneys early on to bring Dr. Jones on as a consultant.) I suspect there is little to no government monitoring of private adoptions, but this case shows why there should be.

3. The “Colorado Method” Works

The most critical member of Cruz’s legal team, in my opinion, was a jury consultant who is a specialist in the so-called “Colorado Method.” This method, which is now widely used (and may have contributed to the drop-off in death sentences nationally) involves using the voir dire interview of prospective jurors to educate them about their right and obligation to resist group consensus when deciding guilt and (especially) penalty in capital cases. In the Cruz deliberation, the method appears to have worked, as three jurors (one adamant, two less so) held out for a life sentence, despite strong pressure from some other jurors.

4. Don’t Give Guns to Teachers

The Parkland case has provided much impetus to those who advocate arming teachers as well as others (most notably a very active group of former Parkland students) who called for stronger gun control laws. The fact that a uniformed police officer stayed outside all the while killings were taking place inside suggests that it is naïve to think that arming teachers will be a solution.

5. Better Educate the Public and Professionals About FASD

Nikolas Cruz has a profoundly abnormal brain (imaging evidence shows extensive damage) but most of the news coverage has focused on his mental health problems. As a young child, he exhibited strong evidence of brain-based developmental problems (I would have testified that he qualified for an early childhood sub-type of intellectual disability termed “global developmental delay”). But until he killed 17 people, the fact that he has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder was simply missed by all of the many mental health professionals and agencies that evaluated him over the years.

The task of a jury in a capital penalty trial is to weigh aggravators against mitigators. The Parkland aggravators are among the worst one will ever find, and I believe it is to the credit of three jurors that they were able to conserve Cruz’s brain-based mitigators in the face of such horrendous aggravators. But the case shows that much work needs to be done to educate mental health professionals (including forensic experts) as well as the public about the deleterious effects of heavy maternal drinking during pregnancy.

Copyright Stephen Greenspan

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