In a move that caught the entire courtroom off guard, Nikolas Cruz’s defence team announced it was resting its case in his sentencing trial after calling less than a third of its expected witnesses.
The 23-year-old mass murderer’s legal team previously said it planned to call around 80 witnesses to the stand as they try to convince jurors to sentence him to life in prison instead of to death.
But, at the start of the 14 September court session, Cruz’s lead attorney Melisa McNeill suddenly revealed that the defence was resting – after calling only around 25 witnesses.
The bombshell announcement immediately plunged the courtroom into chaos.
Judge Elizabeth Scherer branded the defence’s actions the most “unprofessional” she had ever come across in her career and accused Ms McNeill of “insulting” her throughout the trial and playing “some sort of game”.
“Honestly, I have never experienced a level of unprofessionalism in my career. It’s unbelievable,” she fumed.
The judge was forced to place the trial on a two-week pause until 27 September as the prosecution said it wasn’t ready to begin its rebuttal case because it had expected roughly another 40 defence witnesses to testify first.
During the trial, prosecutors spent three weeks presenting graphic details of how Cruz plotted and carried out the murderous attack.
Jurors heard heartbreaking testimony from survivors and victims’ families and harrowing testimony about the wounds sustained by the victims.
They also toured the school site and saw the blood-stained corridors and classrooms just as they were left in the aftermath of the massacre.
The defence then spent 11 days presenting its case, where it argued that Cruz suffered from behavioural and developmental issues and endured a troubled upbringing – and did not receive adequate intervention or treatment.
The last defence witness called on Tuesday was Dr Kenneth Jones, a leading expert in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), who testified that Cruz meets the criteria for someone with behavioural and development problems caused by alcohol exposure in the womb.
But with the defence now rested, there are a number of widely-anticipated witnesses featured on the witness list for Cruz’s team who jurors will now no longer hear from.
Here are some of the key witnesses who had been expected to testify:
Notably absent from the defence’s case is Cruz’s brother Zachary Cruz.
Zachary, 22, was on the defence’s list of witnesses and had long been expected to testify about his older brother’s childhood.
Zachary has the same biological mother as Cruz – Brenda Woodard – and was also adopted by Lynda and Roger Cruz as a baby, being raised in the same home as the mass murderer.
Woodard was homeless, an alcoholic, a drug addict and working as a prostitute when pregnant with Cruz, the court has heard. When Cruz was born, he was adopted by the Cruz parents. Around one year later, Zachary was born and was also adopted by them, with the boys being raised together.
When Cruz was five and Zachary four, Roger died from a sudden heart attack, leaving Lynda to raise the two boys alone.
Jurors have heard testimony that Zachary bullied his older brother and that Lynda struggled with both of her sons’ behaviour, calling the police to the family home dozens of times in the years before the massacre.
In November 2017– just three months before the school shooting – Lynda then died at the age of 68, leaving the two boys orphaned.
Zacharay, who is 14 months younger than his 23-year-old murderer brother, has stood by Cruz ever since he carried out one of the deadliest school shootings in US history.
He hit headlines himself in the aftermath when he was given six months probation for trespassing at the school site where his brother went on his murderous rampage.
Authorities said that Zachary visited the site of the massacre at least three times following the attack – despite warnings to stay away – and became fascinated with the idea that the fame from his brother’s crime would help to attract female attention.
The decision not to call Zachary to testify comes after the defence and prosecution previously came to blows over his testimony.
Earlier in the trial, attorneys for Zachary and his roommate Richard Moore had filed a motion asking the judge to ban prosecutors from asking them certain questions they deemed “not appropriate”. The judge denied the motion and ruled that both witnesses would have to answer all questions the state asked them in a deposition.
Prosecutors also said at one point in the trial that Zachary was starring in a reality show called “Being Zachary Cruz”.
One of the other notable names which featured on the defence’s witness list was Richard Moore, cofounder of bond servicing company Nexus.
Mr Moore had never met Cruz or Zachary prior to the 2018 mass shooting but reached out to Zachary following his trespassing arrest.
Mr Moore and his husband Mike Donovan have since taken Zachary under their wing and he now lives with them and their son in their family home in Virginia.
Mr Moore has attended some of Cruz’s trial and was seen at the courthouse when the defence began presenting its case.
He previously said that he doesn’t approve of what Cruz did but believes “nobody should face this alone”.
Mr Moore’s name has cropped up during the trial, with prosecutors saying that he had sent thousands of dollars of commissary to Cruz in prison “this year alone”.
Dr Heather Holmes
Dr Heather Holmes, a forensic psychologist, was also expected to testify for the defence.
Dr Holmes was hired by the defence to assess Cruz as part of its case that his actions were the culmination of his emotional and developmental problems.
However, in a motion filed before the trial began, prosecutors revealed that the psychologist found Cruz was faking at least some of his issues.
Following his arrest around one hour after carrying out the Valentine’s Day 2018 massacre, Cruz claimed that he was hearing “demons" and “voices”.
“I hear demons ... a voice, demon voice,” he claimed in a police interview.
During a psychological assessment, Cruz also told Dr Holmes that he hears a voice called “Swas” in his head – short for swastika.
The voice “tells him to pretend (a radio in his cell) is a gun and to shoot the guard”, he told her, according to the court documents.
“Swas” also “wants to get shot in the back of the head in the brain stem”, the documents state.
In a deposition for the state, Dr Holmes said that she believed his claims were “nonsense”.
She said that she was “100 percent certain he is not psychotic… I took it as kind of nonsense.”
With the defence rested, Cruz will also no longer be able to take the stand in his own trial to try to convince jurors to spare his life.
The 23-year-old’s attorneys had not previously indicated any plans to call him to testify – which would expose him to cross-examination by the prosecution.
When Cruz changed his plea to guilty back in October, he addressed the court in a brief speech where he apologised to the 17 victims he murdered and said he wished the victims’ families could decide whether he lives or gets the death penalty.
“I am very sorry for what I did, and I have to live with it every day. If I were to get a second chance, I would do everything in my power to try to help others,” he said.
“I am doing this for you, and I do not care if you do not believe me. And I love you, and I know you don’t believe me, but I have to live with this every day, and it brings me nightmares and I can’t live with myself sometimes, but I try to push through because I know that’s what you guys would want me to do.”
On Wednesday, when his attorneys announced they were resting their case, the judge asked him if he understood the decision and that it meant he was waiving his right to testify or to call any other witnesses in future. He agreed “yes ma’am” that he was satisfied with his team’s decisions.
Prosecutors read out the full list of defence witnesses who had not yet testified and the judge asked Cruz if he wanted to call any of them.
He responded: “I don’t know who those people are. I trust my lawyers.”
Judge Scherer pointed out that he knows who Zachary and Mr Moore are and has met the doctors – including Dr Holmes – on the witness list who were hired to evaluate him.
The judge gave Cruz a few minutes to discuss the decision with his lawyers, before he responded: “I think we’re fine”.