FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — In a failed attempt to bar the admission into evidence of multiple swastikas, a Florida school shooter Nicholas Cruz shot on assignments, his lawyers made an unusual argument Thursday during his penalty trial: He was an equal opportunity killer who shot his victims regardless of race or religion.
The lawyers told Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer outside the presence of the jury that the Nazi symbol created such strong anger and revulsion that allowing the panel to see these drawings violated her right to a fair trial because there was no has no evidence that his 2018 murder 17 people at Parkland’s, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High was motivated by bigotry. Those killed and 17 injured included whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians, Christians and Jews.
They also listed the many times they asked Scherer before jury selection to decide whether swastikas would be admitted, saying his failure affected the questions they asked potential jurors and their trial strategy. They asked for a mistrial, which Scherer angrily rejected, calling their argument “dishonest.”
She and prosecutors stressed that the defense was not against admitting drawings made by Cruz that included a crude slur used against black people, which they say is equally offensive. The 12 jurors and 10 alternates include white, black, Asian and Hispanic individuals.
Cruz, 23 years old, pleaded guilty in October; the trial will only determine whether he is sentenced to death or life without parole. The jury must be unanimous to impose a death sentence.
His public defenders are in their second week of giving testimony on Cruz’s Troubled Life — from his birth to a crack-addicted, alcoholic prostitute who put him up for adoption, to a childhood filled with emotional and psychological issues that witnesses say were never adequately addressed.
The swastikas were drawn on English assignments presented by the defense – they wanted the symbols blacked out while retaining other disturbing drawings they contained. After Scherer rejected the lawyers’ attempt to redact the swastikas, they presented the assignments anyway. The jury saw the swastikas, but neither side made them out.
The homework was given by Carrie Yon, who taught Cruz in eighth grade at Westglades Middle School four years before the shooting. Cruz had been in special education classes for his behavioral issues, but was now allowed to enter some mainstream classes like Yon’s.
Yon testified Thursday that she usually returned a student’s material, but kept Cruz’s because she wanted to document his behavior thinking it might be needed at some point. She also took contemporary notes. She turned over the material to the lawyers after the shooting.
During court assignments on Thursday, Cruz wrote gay obscenities and slurs and drew pictures of matchstick figures shooting each other and having sex. He wrote to Yon one day: “I hate you. I hate America.”
She said Cruz was yelling in class, flashing his middle finger, throwing objects and making threats. He once told her “You better give me a good mark for this assignment” and another time threw himself on her then laughed. He punched other children during a fire drill and ran into the street during another, nearly getting hit by a car.
She tried to work with Cruz by giving him candy and compliments when he behaved. Once she praised him for doing his homework, telling him she knew he could be a good student. He replied, “I am a bad boy. I want to kill.”
During an assessment, Yon wrote, “I strongly believe that Nikolas is a danger to the students and teachers at this school. He does not understand the difference between his violent feelings and reality.
She said she originally thought Cruz wanted attention from teachers and other students, but eventually believed he wanted to get kicked out of Westglades because he didn’t have a job. friends and couldn’t do the job.
She frequently complained about Cruz to the administrators and showed them her homework, but some of it was not helpful. She said she was told, “He has the right to an education. He has the right to be here like any other child.
A special educator told Yon that she was too afraid of Cruz, that she had to “get in his face” and tell him: “Hit me, go ahead, hit me”. She refused to do so.
When asked if, in her 12 years as a teacher, if she ever had another student who acted like Cruz, she had a simple answer.
John Vesey, then headmaster of Westglades, said that in 35 years of study he had never had another student like Cruz.
“He was a much more needy kid than any kid I had ever seen,” Vesey said.
Before the end of eighth grade, Cruz was sent to a school, Cross Creek, for students with emotional and disciplinary problems. Cruz did relatively well there, which allowed him to eventually attend Stoneman Douglas. He was kicked out a year before the shooting.
Vesey said success at Cross Creek isn’t necessarily predictive that a student like Cruz will do well at a school like Stoneman Douglas with more than 3,000 students.
Cross Creek is “150 kids with built-in support and you can make sure they’re much more compliant with medication,” Vesey said.
Vesey wishes he had warned the directors of Stoneman Douglas of Cruz before his arrival.
“I feel very guilty about it,” he said.