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Crimes and Courts

School shooter’s brain exams to be subject of court hearing

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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.

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Crimes and Courts

Fake nursing diploma scheme in Florida; 25 arrested

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MIAMI (AP) — Federal authorities in Florida have charged 25 people with participating in a wire fraud scheme that created an illegal shortcut for aspiring nurses to get licensed and find employment.

Recently unsealed federal grand jury indictments allege the defendants took part in a scam that sold more than 7,600 fraudulent nursing degree diplomas from three Florida-based nursing schools, federal officials said during a news conference in Miami on Wednesday afternoon. Prosecutors said the scheme also involved transcripts from the nursing schools for people seeking licenses and jobs as registered nurses and licensed practical/vocational nurses. The defendants each face up to 20 years in prison.

“Not only is this a public safety concern, it also tarnishes the reputation of nurses who actually complete the demanding clinical and course work required to obtain their professional licenses and employment,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe.

Lapointe added that “a fraud scheme like this erodes public trust in our health care system.”

The fake diplomas and transcripts qualified those who purchased them to sit for the national nursing board exam. If they passed, they were able to obtain licenses and jobs in various states, prosecutors said.

The schools involved — Siena College, Palm Beach School of Nursing and Sacred Heart International Institute — are now closed.

Some of those who purchased degrees were from South Florida’s Haitian-American community, including some with legitimate LPN licenses who wanted to become registered nurses, the Miami Herald reported.

“Health care fraud is nothing new to South Florida, as many scammers see this as a way to earn easy, though illegal, money,“ acting Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough said Wednesday.

He said it’s particularly disturbing that more than 7,600 people around the country obtained fake credentials and were potentially in critical health care roles treating patients.

The selling and purchasing of nursing diplomas and transcripts to “willing but unqualified individuals” is a crime that “potentially endangers the health and safety of patients and insults the honorable profession of nursing,” said Special Agent in Charge Omar Pérez Aybar. Pérez said investigators have not found, however, that any of the nurses caused harm to patients.

The students paid a total of $114 million for the fake degrees between 2016 and 2021, the newspaper reported. About 2,400 of the 7,600 students eventually passed their licensing exams — mainly in New York, federal officials said. Nurses certified in New York are allowed to practice in Florida and many other states.

Many of those people may lose their certification but likely won’t be criminally charged, federal officials said.

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Crimes and Courts

Statement from Andrew Warren Following Ruling

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TAMPA, FL (January 20, 2023) – Andrew Warren gave the statement below to reporters following today’s ruling where a federal judge said Governor Ron DeSantis’ suspension of Warren “violated the Florida Constitution” and was “a violation of the First Amendment.”

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The trial was a search for the truth, and over the past five months the truth has come out. The truth is that Gov. DeSantis abused his power and suspended me not in the pursuit of justice but in the pursuit of politics. The truth is that this suspension was never about the job that I did. As the judge wrote, quote, “The actual facts, whether Mr. Warren actually had any blanket non-prosecution policies, did not matter.’’

The suspension was always a political stunt, a cheap trick to add one more misleading line to the governor’s stump speech. The truth is, for the past six years I’ve been a pragmatic, forward-looking state attorney, both tough and smart on crime, representing my own vision of criminal justice and the purple county that I so proudly serve. But DeSantis and his enablers didn’t care about the truth. They didn’t care about our office’s success. They didn’t care about the safety of our community, and they didn’t care about the will of the voters. They cared about scoring political points through a political stunt. Period.

From the day I was suspended, I’ve said that the suspension was illegal. And although a judge said he couldn’t put me back into the office to which I was twice elected, a federal judge confirmed that the suspension was illegal. The judge concluded that the governor violated federal law and state law. He violated my First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution by suspending me for speaking out on issues of public importance. He violated my First Amendment rights by suspending me because I am a Democrat. He violated the Florida Constitution by suspending me not because I had done anything wrong but because my vision as state attorney doesn’t fit with his political agenda. As the judge wrote, and I quote, “The record includes not a hint of misconduct by Mr. Warren. The assertion that Mr. Warren neglected his duty or was incompetent is incorrect. This factual issue is not close.’’

From the beginning, I have said that this case was bigger than just me. The idea that a governor can break federal and state law to suspend an elected official should send shivers down the spine of anyone who cares about free speech, the integrity of our elections or the rule of law, three core principles on which our democracy is built. When the governor announced the suspension, he stood up and proclaimed that our government is a government of laws, not a government of men. I couldn’t agree more. The judge wrote, quote, “If the facts matter. the governor can simply rescind the suspension.’’

Let’s see if the governor actually believes in the rule of law. Let’s see if the governor actually is a man of his word. Let’s see what kind of man the governor actually is. The governor is supposed to represent all Floridians. And if he wants to represent all Americans, then this is a golden opportunity for him to show our country what kind of man he truly is. This is not over. Thank you.

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Crimes and Courts

FAMU Commencement Speaker John Morgan Inspires Graduates With Humor & Wisdom

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Florida A&M University Commencement Speaker Attorney John Morgan exhorted fall 2022 graduates with a mixture of humor and wisdom.

 

Addressing approximately 600 graduates from the University’s dozen colleges and schools in the Al Lawson Jr. Multipurpose Center on Friday evening, the founder of Morgan & Morgan shared time-honored aphorisms he hoped graduates would use as they made their way in the world.

 

“There’s a big difference in dreaming and living your dreams. My hope is that you get to live your dreams. Visionaries are a dime a dozen. The vision maker is the rarity; that is the person who lives their dreams,” said Morgan. “Living your dream is very hard. There are vision blockers who try to keep you still for many reasons. Some of our friends and relatives would rather a total stranger win the lottery than you.”

 

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Morgan moved with his parents and siblings to Orlando, Florida, where he attended high school. After graduating, Morgan enrolled in the University of Florida (UF). He graduated from the UF College of Law in 1983. Five years later, he founded Morgan& Morgan with the mission to represent the people, not the powerful.

 

Without question, John Morgan has established himself as a preeminent legal leader and a friend of FAMU,” said President Larry Robinson, Ph.D., who awarded Morgan the President’s Award.

During his 20-minute speech, Morgan regaled the audience with the story about the 1975 Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier heavyweight championship boxing match, “the Thrilla in Manila” and the lessons each fighter learned.

 

“When things get tough along the way and you don’t think you can go another step, remember that story and answer the bell,” Morgan said referring to Ali’s historic victory. Having led a successful national law firm for more than three decades, Morgan reminded graduates of the need to set their priorities straight.

 

“Your future is whatever you decide to make it,” Morgan said. “When money guides you, you make less money. Greed is not good. Be driven by purpose and passion. If you love what you do, the work the hours will just breeze by.”

Failure can be helpful, Morgan reminded graduates. He cited the experience of failing to get a medical marijuana constitutional amendment on the first try with 58 percent of the vote, which was less than the two-thirds majority required for adoption. On the subsequent attempt, the measure garnered 72 percent of the vote. Morgan said he was inspired to push to legalize medical marijuana by the fate of his brother who was quadriplegic following an accident and endured years of debilitating pain.

 

“The lessons in a failed attempt are building blocks in your next adventure. In life, you need to accomplish success, but you must also seek significance. At the same time, failure can be your friend,” Morgan continued. “Go change the world; dare to be great; do good and do well; dream it and do it. Show up; be early; be great. Find purpose in your passion. And always answer the bell.”

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