Defense expert witness testifies about Parkland school shooter’s fetal alcohol exposure

Neuropsychologist says evidence shows Cruz’s symptoms of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

Paul Connor, a licensed clinical psychologist, and neuropsychologist, said he spent five hours with Nikolas Cruz and performed tests that together with data and other evidence helped him to conclude he suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Parkland school shooter’s defense called an expert witness on Monday to testify about research on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder or FASD, his assessment of the records on the case, and tests performed at the Broward County main jail during a five-hour visit on May 20, 2021.

Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer asked Paul Connor, a licensed clinical psychologist, and neuropsychologist who is not board certified, to avoid testifying about a doctor’s interview of Nikolas Cruz’s biological mother Brenda Woodard, who died of cancer last year.

Paul Connor, a licensed clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist, shows a form Nikolas Cruz’s biological mother Brenda Woodard filled out alleging she had consumed alcohol during pregnancy. (Copyright 2022 by WPLG - All rights reserved.)

Connor said he had charged the defense an hourly rate of $325 and he had billed for 145 hours after a contract was finalized in March 2021. He said the adoption file, birth records, and two defense witnesses indicated there was evidence of Cruz’s prenatal exposure to alcohol and crack cocaine.

“He was diagnosed with ADHD when he was six years old,” Connor said adding the attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder diagnosis is “very commonly seen” among FASD patients.

Connor said studies show that prenatal alcohol exposure had the worst effect on the developing fetus of mice than nicotine, heroin, or cocaine. He also referred to a study associating avian embryos exposed to alcohol with permanent neurodevelopmental disability.

Paul Connor, a licensed clinical psychologist, and neuropsychologist, testified about animal studies on the effects of fetal alcohol exposure. (Copyright 2022 by WPLG - All rights reserved.)

Connor said Cruz’s full-scale intelligence quotient or IQ was an 83, normal awkward, and added that it was within the range of IQ of individuals with FASD. Connor said neuropsychological testing showed Cruz demonstrated repetitive and continuous thoughts and behaviors.

Connor also said 53% of Cruz’s test results were in the impaired range and he concluded that Cruz’s pattern of functioning and other data was consistent with an FASD diagnosis. Connor said FASD is associated with learning difficulties, deficits in school, poor impulse control, or deficits in memory, attention, or judgment.

Paul Connor, a licensed clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist, testifies about the results of intellectual testing he performed on Nikolas Cruz. (Copyright 2022 by WPLG - All rights reserved.)

Before Connor’s testimony, the prosecution objected to parts of a slideshow that the defense provided the night before it was to be presented to the jury. It was related to a pending motion. Scherer, Secor, and Chiappone reviewed the issues page by page before the defense called Connor, of Des Moines, Washington.

Chief Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill delivered the opening statement on Aug. 22 to attribute the 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland to Cruz being “damaged,” and has presented 25 witnesses in 10 days.

The first defense witness was Carolyn Deakins, a recovering addict who said she saw Woodard using crack cocaine and drinking alcohol while she was pregnant with Cruz. The second witness was Danielle Woodard, Cruz’s maternal half-sister, who also testified she saw her drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

The prosecutors rested their case on Aug. 4, after calling 91 witnesses in 12 days, including the 17 survivors injured and the loved ones of the 17 killed who read victim impact statements.

Cruz changed his plea from not guilty to guilty in October. This allowed for only two sentences: Life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. The defense needs to convince only one of the 12 jurors to oppose the death sentence for Cruz to avoid execution.

Scherer said the court was in recess until 9 a.m., on Tuesday. She also asked Connor to be ready to continue his testimony via Zoom.

Watch the 6 p.m. report

The defense of the Parkland school shooter called an expert witness to associate his biological mother's alleged alcohol use during pregnancy to his actions during the Valentine's Day 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Watch Connor’s Sept. 12



Hearsay: information received from other people who are not in the courtroom and the opposing party is unable to substantiate.

Double hearsay: A hearsay statement that contains another hearsay statement itself.

Source: Cornell Law School

Motion considered

This is the first page of a 7-page motion that the prosecution filed on Aug. 10, 2022. (Public Broward County court records)


About the Authors:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.