School shooter’s brain exams to be subject to court hearing

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — A defense mental health expert in the penalty trial of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz can determine when he realized the 23-year-old mass murderer was still having ‘irrational thoughts’ – the the two spoke little when Cruz began to outline plans for a possible life outside prison.

Wesley Center, a Texas counselor, said it happened last year at Broward County Jail while he was fitting Cruz’s scalp with probes for a scanner to map his brain. The defense in hearings this week will try to convince Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that Center and other experts should be allowed to testify in Cruz’s ongoing trial about what their tests showed, which the prosecution wants. to forbid.

“He had a sort of epiphany while he was in (jail) that would focus his thoughts on his ability to help people,” Center told prosecutors in a pretrial interview this year. “His purpose in life was to help others.”

Cruz, of course, will never be free. Since his arrest about an hour after murdering 14 students and three staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on February 14, 2018, there was never any doubt that his remaining years would be behind bars, sentenced to death or life without parole. . Surveillance video shows him mowing down his victims with an AR-15 type semi-automatic rifle and he confessed, eventually pleading guilty in October.

Prosecutors argued the cause of death before the jury of seven men, five women and 10 alternates over three weeks, closing their case on August 4 after the panel toured the still bloodstained and bullet-riddled classroom where the massacre happened.

The jurors also viewed graphic surveillance videos; seen gruesome crime scenes and autopsy photos; received moving testimonies from teachers and students who saw others die; and heard from tearful and angry parents, spouses and other family members about the victims and the impact of their loved one’s death on their lives. They watched a video of the former Stoneman Douglas student calmly commanding an Icee minutes after the shooting and, nine months later, attacking a prison guard.

Soon it will be Cruz’s lawyers explaining why he should be spared, hoping to convince at least one juror that their mitigating circumstances outweigh the aggravating circumstances of the charge – a death sentence must be unanimous.

But first, the trial ended last week in response to requests from some jurors to deal with personal matters. The jury will also be out this week as the sides battle it out before Scherer, who will decide whether the brain scans, tests and other evidence the defense wants to present from August 22 is scientifically valid or undesirable, as the prosecution claims. .

The Center’s test and its conclusions will be the subject of controversial debate. Called a “quantitative electroencephalogram” or “qEEG,” its proponents say it provides useful support for diagnoses such as fetal alcohol syndrome, which Cruz’s attorneys say created his lifelong mental and emotional issues. of his life.

EEGs have been common in medicine for a century, measuring brain waves to help doctors diagnose epilepsy and other brain conditions. But qEEG analysis, which has been around since the 1970s, goes one step further: a patient’s EEG results are compared to a database of brain waves taken from normal or “neurotypical” people. Although qEEG results cannot be used to make a diagnosis, they can support results based on the patient’s history, exam, behavior and other tests, proponents say.

A “qEEG can confirm what you already know, but you can’t create new knowledge,” Center told prosecutors in his interview.

Dr. Charles Epstein, professor of neurology at Emory University, reviewed the Center’s findings for the prosecution. In a written statement to Scherer, he said EEGs using only external scalp probes like the one given to Cruz are inaccurate, rendering the Center’s qEEG results worthless.

“Trash in, trash out,” he wrote.

Florida judges have made mixed decisions on allowing qEEGs since 2010, when the test helped a Miami-area man escape the death penalty for fatally stabbing his wife and seriously injuring his 11-year-old daughter. years old, mentally handicapped. Some judges have since allowed their admission, while others have banned them. Scherer, who is overseeing his first death sentence trial, has never had a case where the defense attempted to present a qEEG report.

Even though Scherer bans the test, lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill and her team still have evidence that Cruz’s brain likely suffered damage in the womb, including statements from her late mother that she had abused alcohol and cocaine during pregnancy.

They also have reports giving circumstantial evidence of his mental illness. Cruz was kicked out of preschool for hurting other kids. During his years in public school, he spent a lot of time in a center for students with emotional problems. He also received years of mental health treatment.

Then there are his life circumstances. Cruz’s adoptive father died in front of him when he was 5 years old; he was bullied by his younger brother and his brother’s friends; he was allegedly sexually abused by a “trusted peer”; he cut himself and abused animals; and his adoptive mother died less than four months before the shooting.

His youth will also be an issue – he was 19 when the shooting happened.

Lawyers not involved in the case say that if Scherer wants to avoid a possible death sentence being overturned on appeal, she should give the defense wide leeway over what she presents so jurors can fully assess her life. and his mental health.

“If it’s a close call, I think she’s going to bow to the defense — and the prosecution isn’t going to be happy,” said David S. Weinstein, a Miami criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor.

About Jessica J. Bass

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