The extensive criminal and drug abuse history of Parkland school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz's biological mother could be a key factor in whether he is sentenced to die for the massacre that killed 17 people, legal experts and officials say.
Brenda Woodard, 62, played no role in Cruz's upbringing after giving him up for adoption after he was born. But her past, which included a crack cocaine purchase arrest while she was pregnant with Cruz, will almost certainly be brought up for a jury considering whether he should live or die.
"It is not necessarily her past, but how her past contributed to his genetic makeup," said David S. Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor now in private practice. "Her use of drugs and alcohol while she was pregnant with him, and how her genetic makeup was passed on to him."
"It might not carry the day, but it will give the jurors another mitigating factor to consider," he added.
Woodard’s identity, first reported Wednesday by the Miami Herald, was confirmed to the Associated Press by a person close to the case who spoke on condition of anonymity because it is an ongoing prosecution.
The American Bar Assn. guidelines for defense lawyers in death penalty cases say they should closely examine the defendant's family, going back at least three generations.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the chairman of a state commission investigating the shooting separate from the prosecution, said that all of Cruz's background is relevant.
"If information has come to light about his biological mother and there is some relevance there, of course we will take a look at it," Gualtieri said. "We are looking heavily at his background and his whole life."
Cruz, 19, is charged with 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. His lawyers say he will plead guilty if spared the death penalty, but prosecutors have refused that offer.
Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein declined to discuss how Woodard's past might become part of the case. But he repeated that Cruz is ready to end it now.
"Lock him up forever. Throw away the key and never speak his name," Finkelstein said in an email. "Maybe it will curtail some of the pain and hurt that certainly will happen if this case continues on a decades-long march to death."
If the case goes to the death penalty phase, all 12 jurors must agree on capital punishment or Cruz will get an automatic life prison sentence.
Cruz and his brother, Zachary, were adopted by Roger and Lynda Cruz soon after Woodard gave birth to them. Roger Cruz died when Nikolas Cruz was a young child and Lynda Cruz died last November, just a few months before the school shooting.
Nikolas Cruz had numerous behavioral and learning problems throughout his life, along with a fascination with guns and his own problems with alcohol and drug abuse.
Court and prison records show that Woodard was arrested more than two dozen times from the 1980s through the 2000s on suspicion of crimes including drug offenses, car theft, weapons possession, burglary, domestic violence and battery charges. She served a variety of prison sentences over those decades, including one 18-month stretch for car theft and fleeing from a law enforcement officer.
Woodard was charged in 2010 with using a tire iron to beat someone she shared an apartment with in a senior living complex. Her last arrest was in 2011, records show.