FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A defense mental health expert in the penalty trial of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz can pinpoint when he realized the 23-year-old mass murderer still has “irrational thoughts” — the two were making small talk when Cruz began describing plans for an eventual life outside prison.
Wesley Center, a Texas counselor, said that happened last year at the Broward County jail as he fitted Cruz’s scalp with probes for a scan to map his brain. The defense at 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 showed, something the prosecution wants barred.
“He had some sort of epiphany while he was in (jail) that would focus his thoughts on being able to help people,” transcripts show Center told prosecutors during a pretrial interview this year. “His life’s purpose was to be helping others.”
Cruz, of course, will never be free. Since his arrest about an hour after he murdered 14 students and three staff members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, there has never been any doubt 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-style semiautomatic rifle and he confessed, eventually pleading guilty in October.
Prosecutors made their argument for death to the seven-man, five-woman jury and 10 alternates over three weeks, resting their case Aug. 4 after the panel toured the still-bloodstained, bullet-pocked classroom building where the massacre happened.
The jurors also watched graphic surveillance videos; saw gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos; received emotional testimony from teachers and students who witnessed others die; and heard from tearful and angry parents, spouses and other family members about the victims and how their loved one’s death impacted their lives. They watched video of the former Stoneman Douglas student calmly ordering an Icee minutes after the shooting and, nine months later, attacking a jail guard.
Soon, it will be Cruz’s attorneys arguing why he should be spared, hoping to convince at least one juror their mitigating factors outweigh the prosecution’s aggravating circumstances — a death sentence must be unanimous.
But first, the trial took last week off to accommodate some jurors’ requests to deal with personal matters. The jury will also be absent this week as the sides argue before Scherer, who will decide whether brain scans, tests and other evidence the defense wants to present starting Aug. 22 is scientifically valid or junk, as the prosecution contends.
Center’s test and its findings will be subject to contentious debate. Called a “quantitative electroencephalogram” or “qEEG,” its backers say it provides useful support to such diagnoses as fetal alcohol syndrome, which Cruz’s attorneys contend created his lifelong mental and emotional problems.
EEGs have been common in medicine for a century, measuring brainwaves to help doctors diagnose epilepsy and other brain ailments. But the qEEG analysis, which has been around since the 1970s, goes a step farther — a patient’s EEG results are compared to a database of brainwaves taken from normal or “neurotypical” people. While qEEG findings cannot be used to make a diagnosis, they can support findings based on the patient’s history, examination, behavior and other tests, supporters contend.
A “qEEG can confirm what you already know, but you can’t create new knowledge,” Center told prosecutors in his interview.
Dr. Charles Epstein, an Emory University neurology professor, reviewed Center’s findings for the prosecution. In a written statement to Scherer, he said EEGs using only external scalp probes like the one given Cruz are imprecise, making Center’s qEEG results worthless.
“Garbage in, garbage out,” he wrote.
Florida judges have given mixed rulings about allowing qEEGs since 2010, when the test helped a Miami-area man escape a death sentence for fatally stabbing his wife and severely wounding her mentally disabled 11-year-old daughter. Some judges have since allowed their admission, while others barred them. Scherer, who is overseeing her first death penalty trial, has never had a case where the defense tried to present a qEEG report.
Even if Scherer bars 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 by his late birth mother that she abused alcohol and cocaine during pregnancy.
They also have reports giving circumstantial evidence of his mental illness. Cruz got kicked out of preschool for hurting other children. During his years in public school, he spent significant time at a center for students with emotional issues. 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; he was bullied by his younger brother and his brother’s friends; he was allegedly abused sexually 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.
Attorneys not involved in the case say if Scherer wants to avoid having a possible death sentence overturned on appeal, she should give the defense wide latitude on what it presents so jurors can fully assess his life and mental health.
“If it’s a close call, I think she is going to bend to the defense — and the prosecution is not going to be happy,” said David S. Weinstein, a Miami criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor.
Secret Service Recovers $286M in Stolen Pandemic Loans
WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Secret Service said Friday that it has recovered $286 million in fraudulently obtained pandemic loans and is returning the money to the Small Business Administration.
The Secret Service said an investigation initiated by its Orlando office found that alleged conspirators submitted Economic Injury Disaster Loan applications by using fake or stolen employment and personal information and used an online bank, Green Dot, to conceal and move their criminal proceeds.
The agency worked with Green Dot to identify roughly 15,000 accounts and seize $286 million connected to the accounts.
“This forfeiture effort and those to come are a direct and necessary response to the unprecedented size and scope of pandemic relief fraud,” said Kevin Chambers, director for COVID-19 fraud enforcement at the Justice Department.
Billions have been fraudulently claimed through various pandemic relief programs — including Paycheck Protection Program loans, unemployment insurance and others that were rolled out in the midst of the worldwide pandemic that shutdown global economies for months.
In March, the Government Accountability Office reported that while agencies were able to distribute COVID-19 relief funds quickly, “the tradeoff was that they did not have systems in place to prevent and identify payment errors and fraud” due in part to “financial management weaknesses.”
As a result, the GAO has recommended several measures for agencies to prevent pandemic program fraud in the future, including better reporting on their fraud risk management efforts.
Since 2020, the Secret Service initiated more than 3,850 pandemic related fraud investigations, seized over $1.4 billion in fraudulently obtained funds and helped to return $2.3 billion to state unemployment insurance programs.
The latest seizure included a collaboration of efforts between Secret Service, the SBA’s Inspector General, DOJ and other offices.
Hannibal “Mike” Ware, the Small Business Administration’s inspector general, said the joint investigations will continue “to ensure that taxpayer dollars obtained through fraudulent means will be returned to taxpayers and fraudsters involved face justice.”
Former Louisville Cop Pleads Guilty in Breonna Taylor Case
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A former Louisville police detective who helped falsify the warrant that led to the deadly police raid at Breonna Taylor’s apartment has pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge.
Federal investigators said Kelly Goodlett added a false line to the warrant and later conspired with another detective to create a cover story when Taylor’s March 13, 2020, shooting death by police began gaining national attention.
Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was shot to death by officers who knocked down her door while executing a drug search warrant. Taylor’s boyfriend fired a shot that hit one of the officers as they came through the door and they returned fire, striking Taylor multiple times.
Goodlett, 35, appeared in a federal courtroom in Louisville on Tuesday afternoon and admitted to conspiring with another Louisville police officer to falsify the warrant. Goodlett briefly answered several questions from federal judge Rebecca Jennings Grady.
Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, was in the courtroom Tuesday but did not speak after the proceedings.
Three former Louisville officers were indicted on criminal civil rights charges earlier this month by a federal grand jury. Goodlett was not indicted, but charged in a federal information filing, which likely means the former detective is cooperating with investigators.
Goodlett will be sentenced Nov. 22. Grady said there may be “extenuating circumstances” that may move the court to push back the sentencing date. Part of the plea hearing was also kept under seal and was not discussed in open court Tuesday. She faces up to five years in prison for the conviction.
She resigned from the department Aug. 5, a day after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced new federal charges in the Taylor case.
Former officers Joshua Jaynes and Kyle Meany were indicted on charges related to the warrant used to search Taylor’s home. A third former officer, Brett Hankison, was charged with using excessive force when he retreated from Taylor’s door, turned a corner and fired 10 shots into the side of her two-bedroom apartment. He was acquitted by a jury on similar state charges earlier this year. Jaynes, Meany and Hankison have all been fired.
The three former officers face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted on the civil rights charges.
Federal prosecutors said in court records that Jaynes, who drew up the Taylor warrant, had claimed to Goodlett days before the warrant was served that he had “verified” from a postal inspector that a suspected drug dealer was receiving packages at Taylor’s apartment. But Goodlett knew this was false and told Jaynes the warrant did not yet have enough information connecting Taylor to criminal activity, prosecutors said. She added a paragraph saying the suspected drug dealer, Jamarcus Glover, was using Taylor’s apartment as his current address, according to the court records.
Two months later, when the Taylor shooting was attracting national headlines, the postal inspector told a media outlet he had not verified packages for Glover were going to Taylor’s apartment. Jaynes and Goodlett then met in Jaynes’ garage to “get on the same page” before Jaynes talked to investigators about the Taylor warrant, court records said.
They decided to say Sgt. John Mattingly, who is identified in the court records as J.M., told them Glover was receiving packages at Taylor’s home, according to prosecutors. Mattingly was shot in the leg during the raid at Taylor’s apartment.
Meany, who signed off on the Taylor warrant and was still a Louisville police sergeant when he was indicted on Aug. 4, was fired by Louisville Police Chief Erika Shields on Friday.
Shields said in a statement that Meany has not yet had his case heard by a jury, but “he is facing multiple federal charges after a lengthy investigation by the DOJ” and should not “expect continued employment under such conditions.”
Hankison was the only officer charged who was on the scene the night of the killing.
Lawyer’s Group Text Causes 2nd Florida Murder Case Mistrial
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A prosecutor in a murder case complained about a judge’s ruling in a group text message that included the judge, resulting in a second mistrial for a man charged with killing his girlfriend’s young son. Now the defense wants the case dismissed altogether.
Broward County Judge Peter Holden refused to allow a 911 call as evidence against Corey Gorden, who is accused of killing the 3-year-old in 2015 and returning him in his car seat to his mother as if nothing had happened.
Assistant State Attorney Katya Palmiotto then sent a text complaining about the ruling to a group of current and former homicide prosecutors, the South Florida SunSentinel reported.
“Holden just sustained their objection and wouldn’t let us put the 911 call in as hearsay,” she wrote.
As a former homicide prosecutor who was appointed to the bench in 2018, the judge remained in the group chat. And lawyers are prohibited in criminal cases from talking with the judge if the defendant’s lawyers are not present.
Defense lawyer Michael Gottlieb filed for mistrial on Wednesday, saying in a summary that the 15-year veteran prosecutor had been overheard saying she messed up “real bad.”
“The judge was visibly upset and appeared angry,” Gottlieb wrote.
Holden grilled the prosecutor about the text message before declaring a mistrial.
In May, another judge declared a mistrial when prosecutors asked a witness about Gorden’s refusal to give a statement. Criminal trial jurors are not permitted to consider the defendants silence as proof of guilt.
Holden has not set a hearing on Gottlieb’s motion to dismiss the case.