Life or Death?
That’s the fate jurors will be asked to decide for Nikolas Cruz, 23, the Parkland School Shooter who confessed and entered a guilty plea to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder of students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
But should he be executed when he was — and still is — mentally ill?
From the day this horrific crime occurred, Valentine’s Day 2018, I’ve followed it all, including reading his 217-page confession and analyzing his jailhouse interrogation play-by-play on live TV. Here are 10 highlights of the many mitigating factors that the jury should consider when they deliberate and decide on his sentence.
- Cruz began life with the deck stacked against him. His mother, Brenda Woodward, was a homeless violent career criminal who abused drugs during her pregnancy with him, and gave him up for adoption, causing him to forever believe he was unlovable.
- He was adopted into a comfortable lifestyle by Roger and Lynda Cruz. But, his world was shaken again when, at age 6, his father died suddenly and his mother had to work, leaving little time to nurture him.
- The shadow of his genetics loomed, and he soon manifested the telltale symptom triad of a budding psychopath: torturing animals, setting fires and bedwetting (though he was likely embarrassed to admit the latter).
- Police records reflect more than 45 calls to his home for various problems — including his violent acting out. His mother’s discipline fell short — as did her realization that these were serious signs of mental illness.
- There are vague reports of his having been diagnosed with such disorders as ADHD, autism and depression. But, his most significant diagnosis – schizophrenia - seems to have eluded mental health professionals. He heard voices, command hallucinations that he called “demons”, telling him to hurt himself and others. He often cut himself and made at least two suicide attempts. He self-medicated with marijuana and Xanax to quiet the voices, but this made his underlying psychiatric conditions worse.
- Though he was reportedly in treatment at Henderson Behavioral Health, during a nine-year period, incompetent therapists missed the severity of his mental illness and never Baker Acted (involuntarily committed) him — though it was clear from the time he was young that he was a danger to others and himself. When he reached 18 years old, Cruz stopped going to treatment and was allowed to fall through the cracks.
- The final trigger was his adopted mother dying suddenly of flu and pneumonia in November 2017. This not only reminded him of being abandoned by his biological mother, it took away his last shred of guidance and love. He ultimately projected his rage at his biological mother onto the high school because both had ‘expelled’ him, and led to his downward spiral.
- Valentine’s Day became a perfect date for his rampage because it highlighted how he had no one who loved him (no parents, friends or girlfriends), it would spoil the day of love for others, and it would make him most notorious as “The Valentine’s Day School Shooter.”
- Throughout his life, people failed to hear Cruz’s cries for help and contributed to his ultimate breakdown into a barrage of bullets. They could have prevented this school shooting from happening, and should share the guilt — his biological parents, adoptive parents, mental health professionals, his schools, the FBI who ignored his warnings on social media, the family who took him in and let him keep the key to the gun safe and the makers of the violent entertainment that he was obsessed with.
- Cruz has been volatile in court. He cried after potential jurors cried at the sight of him. His defense team tried to soothe him with colored pencils and a coloring book, but the prosecutor objected, out of concern this would make him look regressed. More recently, he told the judge he was not mentally ill, which, in itself demonstrates his ongoing lack of insight into his condition. At his latest appearance, he held it together to reply “guilty” to all charges, but the rambling statement he read, which included, “I love you” and a request for the victims to decide his fate instead of a jury – demonstrated his lack of understanding of the judicial process and belied his underlying psychosis.
There will be a lot of pressure on the jurors to sentence him to death because of the horrific nature of the crime and the many Florida families who were affected. These victims were recently awarded a $25 million as part of a civil suit settlement. But this is not enough to heal all wounds and, regardless, some feel that true justice can only be served if Cruz is put to death.
Florida has yet to pass a law to ban the execution of the mentally ill and it’s unlikely this would be done in time for Cruz. But, if the jury gets to hear his whole tragic story – they will realize that life without parole is what he deserves.
Carole Lieberman, M.D., M.P.H., is a Board Certified Beverly Hills Forensic Psychiatrist/Expert Witness who has worked on hundreds of criminal (and civil) cases. She’s a bestselling/award-winning author and her upcoming book, Murder By TV: A Descent Into Madness, is the story of the Jenny Jones Talk Show Murder for which she was the defense psychiatrist. Dr. Lieberman is an Emmy-honored News-Talk commentator. She’s appeared on Oprah, Today, Good Morning America, CNN, FOX, HLN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Court TV, Law and Crime and many more. She was trained in Forensic Psychiatry at NYU-Bellevue. (www.expertwitnessforensicpsychiatrist.com)