School shooter’s brain exams become subject of court hearing

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — A mental health expert in the Florida criminal case against school shooter Nikolas Cruz can pinpoint when he realized the 23-year-old mass murderer still has “irrational thoughts” — the two chatted when Cruz began describing plans for a possible life outside prison.

Wesley Center, a Texas consultant, said that happened last year at the Broward County Jail when he probed Cruz’s scalp for a brain mapping scan. The defense during hearings this week will try to convince Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that Center and other experts should be allowed to testify at Cruz’s ongoing trial about what their tests revealed, something the prosecution wants to ban.

“He had a kind of epiphany while in prison that would make his mind focus on being able to help people,” the Center told prosecutors during a preliminary investigation this year. “The purpose of his life was to help others.”

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

Prosecutors pleaded for death before the jury of seven men, five women and 10 deputies for three weeks, with their cases resting on Aug. 4 after the panel toured the still-blood-stained bullet-holed classroom building where the massacre took place.

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The judges also watched graphic surveillance videos; saw gruesome crime scenes and autopsy photos; receive emotional testimonials from teachers and students who witnessed the deaths of others; and heard from tearful and angry parents, husbands and other relatives about the victims and how their loved one’s death affected their lives. They watched a video of the former Stoneman Douglas student quietly ordering an Icee minutes after the shooting and then attacking a prison guard nine months later.

Soon Cruz’s lawyers will argue why he should be spared, hoping to convince at least one juror that their mitigating factors outweigh the accuser’s aggravating circumstances — a death sentence must be unanimous.

But first, the trial took a leave of absence last week to accommodate requests from some jurors to hear personal cases. The jury will also be absent this week as the parties argue for Scherer, who will decide whether brain scans, tests and other evidence the defense wants to present from Aug. 22 is scientifically valid or nonsense, as the prosecution alleges.

The Center’s test and its findings will be the subject of controversial debate. Called a “quantitative electroencephalogram” or “qEEG,” the funders say it provides helpful support for diagnoses like fetal alcohol syndrome, which Cruz’s lawyers claim caused his lifelong mental and emotional problems.

EEGs have been common in medicine for a century and measure brain waves to help doctors diagnose epilepsy and other brain disorders. But qEEG analysis, which has been around since the 1970s, goes a step further: a patient’s EEG results are compared with a database of brain waves taken from normal or “neurotypic” people. While qEEG findings can’t be used to diagnose, they can support findings based on the patient’s history, exam, behavior and other tests, supporters claim.

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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, discussed the findings of the Center for the Prosecution. In a written statement to Scherer, he said EEGs using only external scalp probes, such as Cruz’s, are inaccurate, making Center’s qEEG results worthless.

“Garbage in, garbage out,” he wrote.

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

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

They also have reports providing circumstantial evidence of his mental illness. Cruz was kicked out of kindergarten 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.

Then there are his living conditions. Cruz’s adoptive father died before his eyes when he was 5; 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 mistreated animals; and his adoptive mother died less than four months before the shooting.

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His childhood 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 overturning a potential death sentence on appeal, she must give the defense wide latitude over what it proposes so jurors can fully assess his life and mental health.

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

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