Defense urges Florida jury to spare life of Parkland school shooter

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Aug 22 (Reuters) - A defense attorney on Monday implored a Florida jury to spare the life of Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 people in a 2018 high school mass shooting in the city of Parkland, citing brain damage linked to fetal drug and alcohol exposure as reason not to impose the death penalty.

Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty last October to committing premeditated murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, about 30 miles (50 km) north of Fort Lauderdale, in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. Cruz killed 14 students and three staff members. read more

Melisa McNeil, Cruz's lead public defender, told the 12 Broward County jurors that he should receive life in prison without parole due to mitigating factors including lifelong developmental delays and mental-health disorders that arose from his biological mother's drug and alcohol abuse during pregnancy.

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"Because of that, his brain was irretrievably broken, through no fault of his own," McNeil told the jury.

Among the witnesses McNeil called after making her opening statement was Cruz's half-sister, Danielle Woodard, who tearfully testified that their mother drank heavily and used drugs including cocaine while she was pregnant with Cruz.

Jurors must decide whether to sentence him to death or to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Prosecutor Michael Satz told jurors in July that Cruz, a 19-year-old expelled student at the time of the shootings, should be put to death for "goal-directed, planned, systematic murder - mass murder - of 14 students, an athletic director, a teacher and a coach." read more

McNeil on Monday acknowledged the horror of Cruz's crime but reminded the jurors that they were under no obligation to vote for death even "in the worst case imaginable. And it is arguable that this is the worst case imaginable."

Under Florida law, a jury must be unanimous in its decision to recommend that a judge sentence Cruz to be executed.

Cruz said when he pleaded guilty that he was "very sorry" and asked to be given a chance to help others. read more

The start last month of the trial's penalty phase included testimony from students who were at school that day and cellphone videos in which terrified students cried for help or spoke in hushed whispers as they hid.

U.S. gun violence gained renewed attention following recent mass shootings. These include one in July at an Independence Day parade outside Chicago that killed seven people, one in May at a school in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead, and one in May at a supermarket in a predominately Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York, that killed 10 people.

President Joe Biden in June signed the first major federal gun reform legislation in three decades, which he called a rare bipartisan achievement. read more

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Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Julia Harte; editing by Will Dunham, Donna Bryson and Jonathan Oatis

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