FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Prosecutors and attorneys for Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz battled Wednesday over whether jurors at his upcoming penalty trial should learn about the swastikas carved on his gun’s magazine, his racist, homophobic and threatening online posts, his computer searches for child pornography and his cruelty to animals.
Prosecutors argued that the swastikas, racism, postings, computer searches and animal cruelty help form the basis of their psychologists' diagnosis that Cruz, 23, suffers from various behavioral control disorders, but is not mentally ill and understands his behavior. Their psychologists also say the postings help show he was not intellectually impaired when he murdered 14 students and three staff members at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.
Assistant prosecutor Jeff Marcus told Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that the prosecution plans only to use the evidence in rebuttal of the expected argument by the defense that Cruz suffers from mental illness and is intellectually impaired.
The disputed evidence presents “a full picture” of Cruz's personality and interests, he said.
"It is certainly not a pretty picture. It is a very ugly picture,” Marcus said.
Tamara Curtis, one of Cruz’s public defenders, told Scherer she will file her final argument in writing. In previous court filings and statements, the defense has contended that the prosecution's use of such evidence would only inflame the jurors' emotions during the trial, which is scheduled to begin July 18. They have said the swastikas, postings and searches have no relevance for showing the aggravating factors the prosecution must prove, such as the multiple deaths, Cruz's cruelty toward his victims and his planning.
Scherer said she will decide later if the evidence can be presented. Cruz pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of first-degree murder. The jury that was recently chosen during a nearly three-month process will decide whether he is executed or receives a sentence of life without parole. For Cruz to get the death penalty, the jury must be unanimous.
Much of Wednesday's hearing centered on what Cruz told psychologists that examined him after the shootings, as recently as March, along with his computer postings and searches. Cruz spent much of the hearing with his head down scribbling on paper, looking up occasionally to speak to one of his attorneys.
According to transcripts that were read, Cruz told psychologists in jailhouse examinations that a friend carved the swastikas on some gun magazines used during the attack, but he carved the Nazi symbol on the boots he wore. The friend was not involved in the attack or its planning.
Cruz also drew a swastika on a backpack he used when he was a student at Stoneman Douglas before his 2017 expulsion to get “negative attention or positive, either way,” he said. Also on that backpack, he wrote “666,” a number some Christians associate with the antichrist, and a racist term for Black people.
“I thought people would come up to me and ask me why I had so many weird symbols on my backpack and ask me if I need help,” he told one psychologist. “I would have been honest and told them I did, but no one ever did.” He also said he hoped someone would beat him up over the backpack, but that never happened, either.
Prosecution psychologist Michael Brannon testified that he believes Cruz was faking it when he told other psychologists after the shooting that a male voice called “Swas," short for swastika, told him to commit violence and that he had demons. He said Cruz only mentioned Swas and the demons to some examiners and wasn't consistent in his descriptions.
Prosecutors also had read pages of online postings and searches Cruz made before the shootings. There were dozens of searches for pornography, including for young children.
He gloated at the 2016 killing of 49 people at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, using an anti-gay slur to describe the victims. He posted of his hatred of racial minorities, Christians, political liberals, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and animals, particularly alligators. Cruz also posted photographs of mutilated animals. He had a history of abusing animals but it is not clear whether these were his own photos or others.
Cruz also searched for how long it takes for police to respond to mass shootings. The school's on-campus deputy arrived at the building two minutes after the first shots were fired, but never went inside to confront him. The first off-campus officers charged into the building 11 minutes after Cruz opened fire, about four minutes after he had fled. He was arrested about an hour later as he walked through a neighborhood.
Cruz also threatened online to commit mass killings, including a targeted attack against Black people. There is no indication that Cruz targeted anyone for their race, politics or sexual orientation in the Stoneman Douglas shooting.