FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who is presiding over the Parkland school shooter’s death penalty phase, warned witnesses who have yet to testify to stop watching the proceedings.
Scherer said on Tuesday that the prosecution that is seeking the death penalty as a punishment for the 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had invoked the rule of sequestration.
Scherer said this meant that witnesses cannot be in the courtroom to listen to the testimony of other witnesses or watch the proceeding on television or online. She issued the order and said it excludes mental health experts.
“Your testimony could be compromised. Your ability to testify could be compromised,” Scherer warned.
Watch a video of the judge’s order
Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill said the defense team has over 80 witnesses. They called their first six witnesses on Monday and Tuesday to remember the shooter’s experiences as a baby and child in kindergarten and elementary school.
Anne Fischer was the first witness on Tuesday. She said she met Cruz and his adoptive parents while working as a director of the Young Minds Learning Center. When he was in pre-K, she said he bit other children, slapped a teacher’s hand, and had tantrums.
“She told me later in time, his mother was an addict,” Fischer said about Cruz’s adoptive mother, Lynda Cruz, being aware of Cruz’s biological mother’s drug use.
Fischer said Nikolas Cruz bit about five kids while a student at the Young Minds Learning Center, and when a child sat next to him, he “socially didn’t know what to do,” so he bit them. Fischer said she didn’t think Cruz was a bully; he just lacked communication skills.
Watch the 12 p.m. report
Patricia Devaney-Westerlind was the second witness on Tuesday. She said she considered Lynda Cruz, who died in November 2017, a very good friend when they were neighbors in Parkland. She said Lynda and Roger Cruz were like “soulmates” and she was a “very loving, caring” mother.
“She would go and get him all of these sailor outfits, she worked on the nursery for a long time, she was just the happiest I ever saw her,” Devaney-Westerlind said about Lynda Cruz’s first adoption.
Devaney-Westerlind said she noticed in 2001 that because he and her daughter were only months apart in age it appeared to her that he had developmental delays. She said she also noticed he was physically smaller than all of the other kids.
Devaney-Westerlind said she and Lynda Cruz were out of touch when she learned of her death. She said she remembered her being very protective of Nikolas Cruz, so she was very concerned when she learned that he was living with his alleged sexual abuser after she died.
“Lynda told me that [a former neighbor]’s son sodomized Nikolas,” Devaney-Westerlind said about a phone conversation they had sometime between 2010 and 2014. She later added, “She walked into Nikolas’s room, and [a former neighbor’s son] was sodomizing her son.”
Watch the 3 p.m. report
The prosecution objected to what they referred to as a hear-say statement and Scherer agreed to instruct the jury to ignore the allegations of sexual abuse. Devaney-Westerlind continued her testimony on the record without the jury present and when the jury returned Scherer told her to avoid the subject.
Devaney-Westerlind said she visited Nikolas Cruz after the shooting in May in jail. She said she talks to him on the phone about four or five times a week. She said he likes to hear about his father and she reminds him that his mother loved him.
“I wanted him to know that somebody was here for him. I know that Lynda would have been there from the beginning,” Devaney-Westerlind said after breaking down in tears; her hands shaking.
Related story: Record of some of the jail calls with Devaney-Westerlind
Watch the 4 p.m. report
John Newnham, a former Broward County Public Schools counselor, was the defense’s third witness of the day. He said he met Cruz’s adoptive parents when they visited Coral Springs Elementary School. He claimed to still remember how shy Cruz was.
“Shrinking away from contact ... whether it would be a fist pump, handshake or a high five ... he somehow clung to the adult who he was with,” Newnham said about meeting Cruz, also adding, “He appeared very anxious, very fearful, did not make eye contact with me.”
Newnham said Nikolas Cruz’s achievement was “below what was expected.” He also said he heard Nikolas become “hyper-focused” on the clock and get increasingly agitated and be really hard on himself, Newnham said.
“I do remember him saying a few times, ‘I am a freak.’ There were some negative patterns of either his perception of himself or the way that he spoke about himself,” Newnham said.
Newnham said Lynda Cruz was inconsistent when it came to using the support available. He said she told him she was “overwhelmed” and “burned out” because of both of her sons’ defiance and trouble in the neighborhood. He said he offered additional school-based counseling and other services.
“I recommended that she see a psychiatrist ... neuropsychologist, in-home counseling ... I advised her to explore all of her options ... Broward County offers a variety of services that support parents of children with challenging behaviors,” Newnham said.
Nikolas Cruz had been diagnosed with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, according to Newnham. Lynda Cruz struggled with setting limits and was reluctant about enforcing rules that were met with temper tantrums, he said.
“She was somewhat fearful of them,” Newnham said.
On Monday, McNeill delivered her opening statement and she and her team called the first three witnesses: Carolyn Deakins, Danielle Woodard, and Susan Hendler-Lubar.
Deakins and Woodard said they witnessed Cruz’s biological mother, Brenda Woodard, using cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol while pregnant with Cruz. Hendler-Lubar, a special education teacher, said Cruz had developmental delays, language impairments, and violent animal fantasy behavior during pre-school.
“His brain was irretrievably broken to no fault of his own,” McNeill said during her opening statement.
Prosecutors rested their case on Aug. 4, after calling 91 witnesses in 12 days, including the 17 who survived the shooting wounds they suffered on Feb. 14, 2018, at the school’s 1200 building.
The defense needs only one of the 12 jurors to oppose the death sentence, so Cruz is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in October.
Watch the 5 p.m. report
Watch the 6 p.m. report