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Lawyers for the Parkland school shooter make the case for him not to be executed

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Lawyers for the gunman who opened fire on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida have begun to present their case. Nikolas Cruz has already pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder. The jury now has two options, a sentence of life in prison without parole or the death penalty. Defense lawyers are asking the jury to spare Cruz's life. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Defense lawyers for Nikolas Cruz deferred delivering their opening statement until the prosecution had made its case. For weeks, the jury heard emotional and graphic testimony as prosecutors laid out the grim facts. The facts have never been in dispute. In February of 2018, Cruz, a troubled former student, entered a school building with an AR-15-style rifle and began shooting students and staff members. When he was done, 17 people were dead and 17 others were wounded. The murders were captured on surveillance video. In court, students and teachers who survived the shooting described the horrific events. In her opening statement yesterday, defense attorney Melisa McNeill acknowledged Cruz's responsibility and tried to turn the page.

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MELISA 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: Under Florida law, a unanimous verdict is required for the jury to deliver a sentence of death. That means they must convince at least one juror that Cruz deserves a sentence of life in prison. Jurors must decide if aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors. Prosecutors have laid out a host of reasons they're asking for the death penalty - among them, the fact that multiple murders were committed and that it was, in legal parlance, horrendous, atrocious or cruel. Yesterday, the defense began telling Cruz's history in hopes that it may sway some jurors from a death sentence. Among the witnesses was Carolyn Deakins, who described herself as a recovering addict who used to abuse alcohol and crack cocaine with Cruz's birth mother, Brenda Woodard. Deakins says both women worked as prostitutes to support their drug habit. She says she was angry when Woodard told her she was pregnant.

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CAROLYN DEAKINS: And I rant and raved a little bit. She said, don't worry about it. It's all took care of. I have a lawyer. And the baby's going up for adoption. And so I'm not going to have to worry about it. And that's how she felt. She didn't want it.

MCNEILL: And then she addressed Cruz directly.

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DEAKINS: Nikolas, I'm sorry, but that's how it was.

ALLEN: The jury also heard from Cruz's older sister, who spoke about her mother's rampant drug and alcohol abuse. Another witness was one of Cruz's first teachers when he was just 3 years old. She noted at the time that he was developmentally delayed and had significant behavioral problems. Defense attorney Melisa McNeill said she'll present evidence and testimony from experts that Cruz suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. She also talked about disturbing drawings and threats of violence Cruz continues to produce 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 happen.

ALLEN: McNeill placed some of the blame for Cruz's problems on his adoptive mother, Lynda Cruz, now deceased. Cruz at first ignored her son's problems and need for help, McNeill says. Later, over the objections of counselors and friends, she brought him first a BB gun, and then when he turned 18, helped him buy a rifle. McNeill says she isn't trying to justify or explain the attack and the 17 deaths. She told the jury they should have a full picture of Cruz's troubled history before they decide on his sentence. The defense will continue making its case in court today.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Fort Lauderdale. 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.