Defense team abruptly rests its case in death penalty trial of Parkland school shooter

Originally Published: 14 SEP 22 11:49 ET

    (CNN) -- The defense team in the trial of Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz abruptly rested its case Wednesday, leading the judge to admonish his attorneys for what she described as a "level of unprofessionalism" she had never before experienced.

At the beginning of their case, lead defense attorney Melisa McNeill said they planned to call 80 witnesses, but the defense has so far called just 26. Prosecutors told the judge they were not ready to proceed with their rebuttal Wednesday.

"We were waiting for another 40 witnesses," lead prosecutor Mike Satz said, throwing up his hands.

The rebuttal by state prosecutors could happen as soon as September 27. Closing arguments could take place as early as October 3.

Cruz pleaded guilty last October to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. That triggered the current phase of his trial, which is meant to determine his sentence.

Prosecutors have asked a jury to recommend he be sentenced to death, while Cruz's defense has asked for a sentence of life in prison without parole. To recommend a death sentence, jurors must be unanimous. If they do so, the judge could choose to follow their recommendation or sentence Cruz to life instead.

Defense attorneys in laying out their case aimed to present the jury with mitigating factors -- reasons Cruz should not be put to death. They detailed a lifetime of struggles at home and in school, including being born to a woman McNeill described as a drug and alcohol abuser who worked as a prostitute while pregnant with Cruz.

Cruz also exhibited developmental and educational difficulties throughout his life that his lawyers argued were not appropriately addressed.

"His brain is broken; he's a damaged human being," McNeill said in the defense's opening statement.

Prosecutors have argued Cruz's decision to carry out the massacre, in which he killed 14 students and three school staff members, was not based on a whim but premeditated and calculated. They presented the jury with Cruz's online search history in the months leading up to the shooting, along with social media comments expressing a desire to kill people.

Their case was followed by impact statements from the families of the victims, including many parents who spent days offering emotional testimony about how the shooter robbed them not only of their children but those victims' futures -- and the graduations, first jobs, weddings and grandchildren that will never be celebrated.

Jurors also toured the site of the shooting -- the high school's 1200 building -- which had been sealed to preserve it for the trial. Inside, they found a scene riddled with bullet holes, bloodstains, Valentine's Day gifts and cards and other things students and teachers left behind as they fled gunfire.

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