Crime

Nikolas Cruz’s lawyers ask judge to allow ‘informal’ interviews with mental health clinic staff

Listen to the conversation between Nikolas Cruz and his brother in police interrogation room

Zachary Cruz talks to his brother, Nikolas, hours after Nikolas killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Feb. 14, 2018. Prosecutors released video of the police interrogation Wednesday.
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Zachary Cruz talks to his brother, Nikolas, hours after Nikolas killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Feb. 14, 2018. Prosecutors released video of the police interrogation Wednesday.

Employees at Henderson Behavioral Health treated Nikolas Cruz for nearly a decade before he shot and killed 17 people at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

His lawyers want a judge to allow them to interview clinic employees “informally” — without prosecutors present.

The defense team made the case Thursday at a hearing for Cruz, 20, who is facing the death penalty for the slaughter at the Parkland school in February 2018. As with all death-penalty cases, defense lawyers are hoping to uncover “mitigation” that might sway jurors to spare their client execution.

In Cruz’s case, the mitigation will focus on his long-documented past of mental-health treatment, and troubling behavior that included killing animals, emotional outbursts, threats against classmates and a fixation on weapons and violent imagery. But Henderson, which is facing a slew of civil lawsuits over the Parkland massacre, is requiring a subpoena that would allow prosecutors to be present during any conversations with employees.

Assistant Public Defender Melissa McNeil said the employees “impressions” are key to understanding Cruz’s treatment at Henderson, and having prosecutors there during interviews would make them clam up. . “It takes awhile to establish trust,” McNeil said.

Prosecutor Steven Klinger, however, said Florida law does not allow defense lawyers to issue subpoenas for “informal” conversations without both sides present. “There is no authority whatsoever,” Klinger said.

Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer did not rule on the issue Thursday but said she will issue a written order in a few days.

Thursday’s hearing was yet another legal squabble between prosecutors and the Broward Public Defender’s Office, clashes that are routine in any death-penalty case. With hundreds of witnesses and thousands of pieces of evidence, the gargantuan case has plodded along through the legal system, with frequent bickering between lawyers over the turning over of reports, records and other evidence.

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