The former director of a pre-kindergarten school testified that Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz bit and hit other children, slapped the hand of a teacher, and was largely withdrawn from any classroom interaction when he was a 1-year-old.
Young Minds Learning Center former director Anne Fischer was the fourth witness called on the second day of the defense attempt to show Cruz had developmental problems since he was born to a drug-addicted mother in 1998.
Defense team leader Melisa McNeill said she plans to call more than 80 witnesses to show that Cruz’s problems made him feel like a social outcast and that’s what triggered the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.
Cruz has pleaded guilty to 17 murders and 17 attempted murders, and the defense is trying to get at least one juror to vote against the death penalty 17 times so he can serve a life sentence.
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Fischer worked at the pre-K school from 1999 to 2004 and said it was clear Cruz had problems at an early age.
“In all areas, in my opinion, he was delayed [developmentally],” she said.
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Fischer testified Cruz had poor language skills, was clumsy, overstimulated and had trouble relating to other children.
“Nikolas was not a bully,” she said. “He just didn’t have social skills.”
It took a while before Fischer learned Cruz was adopted, but she said that didn’t change her opinion of his upbringing.
“He was in a very loving home and they tried their best,” she said of adoptive parents Lynda and Roger Cruz.
Fischer did express some regret, in hindsight.
“I feel guilty now that I could have done more for him to make him a better person,” she said.
Lynda Cruz was a bridesmaid for the next witness on the stand Tuesday.
Patricia Devaney-Westerlind’s two children played with Nikolas and Zachary Cruz because they were about the same age and their mothers were close.
“[Lynda] was a very loving mother,” she said, but admitted Nikolas Cruz was a handful.
“[Nikolas] was very hyper, running around, getting into things," she testified. “He was a biter and a bed-wetter … until he was about 6 or 7.”
Devaney-Westerlind said she found out about the mass shooting on television while living in New Jersey.
“I was sick to my stomach, uh, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “First, I find out on the news [Lynda] had passed away and then I find out [about] Nikolas.”
Witness John Newnham was a family counselor with the Broward County School Board who treated Nikolas Cruz.
“My immediate impression was of a very shy, somewhat fearful student," he testified. “[Nikolas] appeared very anxious, very fearful. He did not make eye contact with me.”
Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer also warned potential witnesses not to watch the court proceedings on mainstream media, social media or in the courtroom.