Nikolas Cruz has been faking the extent of his mental illness and cognitive issues and was “clearly playing games” during evaluations with experts, according to a renowned clinical psychologist.
Dr Robert Denney took the witness stand on Tuesday morning in the sentencing trial for the 24-year-old mass murderer, where jurors will decide whether to sentence him to life in prison or to death for the murders of 17 people on Valentine’s Day 2018.
Dr Denney, who is one of just seven people in the world with board certifications in both forensic psychology and clinical neuropsychology, visited Cruz in Broward County Jail over two days in March to carry out a series of tests.
He testified that Cruz cheated during the tests and was “grossly exaggerating” symptoms of mental illness, poor memory and other health concerns.
“He is grossly exaggerating severe mental illness,” he said, adding that “[he was] grossly exaggerating severe psychiatric problems as well as semantic concerns, body concerns, cognitive concerns and memory complaints”.
For one of the tests evaluating memory, Dr Denney testified that Cruz was “playing games” to make his abilities appear worse than they truly are.
When asked to recall certain words, Cruz “chose” to repeat the wrong words – but words that had been part of the test earlier on.
The clinical neuropsychologist said that being unable to recall the correct words would show that Cruz has a “free recall worse than severe dementia patients”.
But, he said this was contradicted by the fact that Cruz repeated other words which he was presented with earlier instead – proving that Cruz does have the memory capability but was “playing with me” in his evaluation.
“He chose to give me the wrong words and that doesn’t happen in clinical practice,” Dr Denney testified.
“It proves that he could remember those if he chose to do so... He was clearly playing with me.”
He added: “This is not what you see with real memory impairment. This is what you see when someone is playing games with you.”
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz appears to smirk as videos are played in court where he details his planning for the massacre
(© South Florida Sun Sentinel 2022)
When asked by the prosecutor if Cruz was “faking”, Dr Denney said that he was trying to look more impaired than he truly is.
“In plain words he was not trying to do good on the testing,” he testified.
“Based on my clinical judgement, it’s because I think he was trying to look more impaired than he is.”
Dr Denney went on to testify that the level of impairment which Cruz showed in some of his other test results were so severe that he would not be able to even take the test if it was true.
“This is the most extreme impairment in attention deficit seen in the history of the world. That’s the level of impairment here,” he said.
“If his attention problems were as bad as this he simply wouldn’t be able to take the test”.
He added: “The most extreme level on all of these scales. And yet we can’t take that as being valid because the validity scale says ‘this is not done properly.’”
Jurors were also shown graphic footage from the massacre as further evidence that Cruz’s test scores do not appear to match his actions.
Several video clips were not shown to the public – but only to the jurors and legal teams in the courtroom.
One clip showed terrified students hiding on the floor inside a classroom in Marjory Stoneman as multiple shots are heard being fired in rapid succession and chilling screams ring out.
Dr Denney testified about the footage – which he said contradicted Cruz’s finger tapping test scores and indicated he has been faking his conditions.
The expert said that the “rapidity” of the gunshots one after the next does not fit with someone who has “slow finger tapping performance”.
One of the other videos – not shared with the public – shows Cruz moving through the school firing shots.
Dr Denney said that it shows Cruz “swung round the doorway” and pulled the trigger with “two rapid shots” – depicting someone with “motor control and balance”.
“That fluidity in a real life situation does not match a test score,” he said.
“There’s absolutely no way that finger tapping score is valid.”
Based on his neurological testing, Dr Denney concluded that Cruz has borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.
His testimony corresponds with that of Dr Charles Scott, another rebuttal witness for the prosecution, who also diagnosed Cruz with the two conditions.
Antisocial personality disorder is a mental disorder – often referred to as sociopathy – where the individual consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and has no guilt or remorse for their behaviour.
Dr Scott also found that Cruz was malingering – where an individual intentionally fakes or exaggerates a condition or illness.
The expert testimony comes as prosecutors seek to use their rebuttal case to tear holes in the defence’s argument that Cruz suffers from a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and that this led him to carry out the 2018 massacre.
Cruz was 19 when he travelled to his former high school armed with an AR-15 and murdered 17 students and staff members.
Last October, he pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and attempted murder.
Now, a jury will decide whether to sentence him to life in prison or to death.