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Testimony: School shooter’s home ruled by chaos

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Testimony: School shooter’s home ruled by chaos

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Chaos reigned in the home where Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz grew up, testimony in his ongoing penalty trial has shown.

He and his half-brother Zachary tormented their adoptive, widowed mother, Lynda. By the time Cruz reached middle school in the early 2010s, the pair took their fists and baseball bats to the walls, leaving gaping holes. They destroyed televisions and carved gashes in furniture, witnesses said.

Zachary may have been two years younger, but he was bigger and stronger and relentlessly picked on his brother — one social worker remembered Zachary climbing atop a counter and stepping in Nikolas’ cereal as he ate.

Lynda Cruz called sheriff’s deputies to the family’s 4,500-square-foot (420-square-meter) home at least two dozen times between 2012 and 2016 to deal with one son, the other or both. Most calls were for fighting, destroying her property, disrespecting her or running away.

“Nikolas was very easily set off and I think Zachary derived some pleasure from pushing Nikolas’ buttons,” testified Frederick Kravitz, one of Cruz’s childhood psychologists. In turn, “they were very good at pushing (their mother’s) buttons.”

Nikolas Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to murdering 17 students and staff members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. His trial is only to decide whether he is sentenced to death or life without parole. The trial resumes Monday after a week off.

Lead prosecutor Mike Satz’s case was straightforward. He played security videos of the shooting and showed the AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle Cruz used. Teachers and students testified about watching others die. He showed graphic autopsy and crime scene photos and took jurors to the still blood-stained, bullet-pocked classroom building Cruz terrorized. Parents and spouses gave tearful and angry statements about their loss.

In an attempt to counter that, assistant public defender Melisa McNeill and her team have made Cruz’s history their case’s centerpiece, hoping at least one juror will vote for life. A death verdict must be unanimous.

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The defense wants to show that from Cruz’s birth to a hard-drinking, crack-smoking Fort Lauderdale prostitute, he never fully received needed help even as he grew increasingly out of control.

And nowhere was that more apparent than in the home Roger and Lynda Cruz built in Parkland, an upscale Fort Lauderdale suburb. They adopted Nikolas at birth in 1998 and, in 2000, Zachary, who had a different birth father.

Lynda Cruz, who turned 50 shortly after adopting Nikolas, was a stay-at-home mom. Roger Cruz, then 61, owned a successful marketing business.

Lynda Cruz “had wanted a child, always wanted a child. So once she got Nikolas, she felt like her family was complete,” friend Trish Davaney-Westerlind testified. “He was a cute little baby. She would go and get him all these sailor outfits. She was just the happiest I ever saw.”

But by preschool, Cruz showed extreme behavior. Neighbors and teachers testified he hit and bit other children and didn’t socialize. He was anxious, fell when he ran and couldn’t use utensils. Nikolas started seeing psychiatrists and psychologists at age 3 and didn’t fully talk or become potty trained until 4.

At 5, just as Cruz entered kindergarten, he witnessed his father suffer a fatal heart attack in the family’s den. That left Lynda Cruz alone in her mid-50s with two sons who would have challenged a much younger couple.

Unemployed, she became paranoid about spending, keeping her air conditioners’ thermostats in the 80s (25 to 30 Celsius) and unplugging unused appliances. One friend said her monthly electric bill was $80, a fraction of what the owner of a large South Florida home typically pays.

She padlocked the refrigerator so her sons couldn’t eat without permission and kept it so poorly stocked neighbors gave her groceries.

Friends gave conflicting testimony over whether Lynda Cruz really was financially strapped or had wealth she didn’t want to spend.

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In either case, she had expenses other parents didn’t. Cruz’s mental health treatments weren’t fully covered by insurance. He loved online, often violent video games, but hated losing – that’s what caused him to destroy TVs and damage walls. She sometimes locked his video game counsel in her car as punishment — and Cruz at least once broke a window to get it back.

“She was a little afraid of him,” neighbor Paul Gold testified.

Despite Cruz’s tantrums, Lynda Cruz told teachers and counselors he was gentle and loving, a mama’s boy. Friends testified that wasn’t wholly a facade — Cruz and his mother did have a strong, often affectionate attachment and she favored him over his brother.

Still, Zachary remained popular in the neighborhood while Cruz was the outcast — and not just with children.

Steven Schusler testified that shortly after moving nearby, his landlord called over the Cruz boys and pointed at Nikolas, then about 10.

“He’s the weird one, aren’t you Nicky?” Schusler recalled the woman saying. Cruz ”curled up” and “looked like a snail when you put salt on one.”

But Cruz’s behavior was often strange and sometimes violent. When he was 9, a parent called police after he hit her child in the head with a rock. When his dog died after eating a poisonous toad, he went on a killing spree against the amphibians. At middle school, his outbursts disrupted classes and he plastered his homework with racist slurs, swastikas, obscenities and stick figures having sex or shooting each other.

Lynda Cruz became so overwhelmed in Cruz’s early teens, a social services agency was assigned to help. That’s what brought case manager Tiffany Forrest to the home. She said Lynda Cruz complained Nikolas wouldn’t bathe, so Forrest tried to explain to him the importance of hygiene. Cruz stood up, walked outside and jumped clothed into the pool. He then climbed out.

“I showered,” he told Forrest.

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In the coming weeks, Cruz’s attorneys are expected to present testimony about his transfer to a school for students with emotional and behavioral problems, his time at Stoneman Douglas and call his brother to the stand. Zachary now lives in Virginia with two benefactors.

Their mother died less than four months before the shooting.

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AP writer Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale contributed to this report.

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Lawyers for the US tell a UK court why WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange should face spying charges

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Lawyers for the US tell a UK court why WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange should face spying charges

LONDON (AP) — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange won’t find out until next month at the earliest whether he can challenge extradition to the U.S. on spying charges, or if his long legal battle in Britain has run out of road.

Two High Court judges said Wednesday they would take time to consider their verdict after a two-day hearing in which Assange’s lawyers argued sending him to the United States would risk a “flagrant denial of justice.”

Attorneys for the U.S., where Assange has been indicted on espionage charges, said he put innocent lives at risk and went beyond journalism in his bid to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified U.S. government documents.

Assange’s lawyers asked the High Court to grant him a new appeal — his last roll of the legal dice in the saga that has kept him in a British high-security prison for the past five years.

The judges overseeing the case reserved their decision, and a ruling on Assange’s future is not expected until March at the earliest.

If judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson rule against Assange, he can ask the European Court of Human Rights to block his extradition — though supporters worry he could be put on a plane to the U.S. before that happens, because the British government has already signed an extradition order.

The 52-year-old Australian has been indicted on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse over his website’s publication of a trove of classified U.S. documents almost 15 years ago. American prosecutors allege Assange encouraged and helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks published, putting lives at risk.

Lawyer Clair Dobbin, representing the U.S. government, said Wednesday that Assange damaged U.S. security and intelligence services and “created a grave and imminent risk” by releasing the hundreds of thousands of documents — risks that could harm and lead to the arbitrary detention of innocent people, many of whom lived in war zones or under repressive regimes.

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Dobbin added that in encouraging Manning and others to hack into government computers and steal from them, Assange was “going a very considerable way beyond” a journalist gathering information.

Assange was “not someone who has just set up an online box to which people can provide classified information,” she said. “The allegations are that he sought to encourage theft and hacking that would benefit WikiLeaks.”

Assange’s supporters maintain he is a secrecy-busting journalist who exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have long argued that the prosecution is politically motivated and he won’t get a fair trial in the U.S.

Assange’s lawyers argued on the first day of the hearing on Tuesday that American authorities are seeking to punish him for WikiLeaks’ “exposure of criminality on the part of the U.S. government on an unprecedented scale,” including torture and killings.

Lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said there is “a real risk he may suffer a flagrant denial of justice” if he is sent to the U.S.

Dobbin said the prosecution is based on law and evidence, and has remained consistent despite the changes of government in the U.S. during the legal battle.

She added that the First Amendment does not confer immunity on journalists who break the law. Media outlets that went through the process of redacting the documents before publishing them are not being prosecuted, she said.

Assange’s lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted, though American authorities have said the sentence is likely to be much shorter.

Assange was absent from court on both days because he is unwell, WikiLeaks said. Stella Assange, his wife, said he had wanted to attend, but was “not in good condition.”

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Assange’s family and supporters say his physical and mental health have suffered during more than a decade of legal battles, including seven years in self-exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

“Julian is a political prisoner and he has to be released,” said Stella Assange, who married the WikiLeaks founder in prison in 2022.

“They’re putting Julian into the hands of the country and of the people who plotted his assassination,” she added, referring to unproven claims by Assange’s lawyers that he was a target of a CIA plot to kidnap or kill him while he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy.

Supporters holding “Free Julian Assange” signs and chanting “there is only one decision — no extradition” protested outside the High Court building for a second day.

Assange’s legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. In 2012, Assange jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy.

The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested and imprisoned him for breaching bail in 2012. Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed.

A U.K. district court judge rejected the U.S. extradition request in 2021 on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. Higher courts overturned that decision after getting assurances from the U.S. about his treatment. The British government signed an extradition order in June 2022.

Meanwhile, the Australian parliament last week called for Assange to be allowed to return to his homeland.

Andrew Wilkie, an Australian lawmaker who attended the hearing, said he hoped that sent a strong message to the U.K. and U.S. governments to end the legal fight. “This has gone on long enough,” he said.

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Associated Press video journalists Kwiyeon Ha and Jo Kearney contributed to this report.

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Biden to create cybersecurity standards for nation’s ports as concerns grow over vulnerabilities

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Biden to create cybersecurity standards for nation’s ports as concerns grow over vulnerabilities

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order and created a federal rule aimed at better securing the nation’s ports from potential cyberattacks.

The administration is outlining a set of cybersecurity regulations that port operators must comply with across the country, not unlike standardized safety regulations that seek to prevent injury or damage to people and infrastructure.

“We want to ensure there are similar requirements for cyber, when a cyberattack can cause just as much if not more damage than a storm or another physical threat,” said Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser at the White House.

Nationwide, ports employ roughly 31 million people and contribute $5.4 trillion to the economy, and could be left vulnerable to a ransomware or other brand of cyberattack, Neuberger said. The standardized set of requirements is designed to help protect against that.

The new requirements are part of the federal government’s focus on modernizing how critical infrastructure like power grids, ports and pipelines are protected as they are increasingly managed and controlled online, often remotely. There is no set of nationwide standards that govern how operators should protect against potential attacks online.

The threat continues to grow. Hostile activity in cyberspace — from spying to the planting of malware to infect and disrupt a country’s infrastructure — has become a hallmark of modern geopolitical rivalry.

For example, in 2021, the operator of the nation’s largest fuel pipeline had to temporarily halt operations after it fell victim to a ransomware attack in which hackers hold a victim’s data or device hostage in exchange for money. The company, Colonial Pipeline, paid $4.4 million to a Russia-based hacker group, though Justice Department officials later recovered much of the money.

Ports, too, are vulnerable. In Australia last year, a cyber incident forced one of the country’s largest port operators to suspend operations for three days.

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In the U.S., roughly 80% of the giant cranes used to lift and haul cargo off ships onto U.S. docks come from China, and are controlled remotely, said Admiral John Vann, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard’s cyber command. That leaves them vulnerable to attack, he said.

Late last month, U.S. officials said they had disrupted a state-backed Chinese effort to plant malware that could be used to damage civilian infrastructure. Vann said this type of potential attack was a concern as officials pushed for new standards, but they are also worried about the possibility for criminal activity.

The new standards, which will be subject to a public comment period, will be required for any port operator and there will be enforcement actions for failing to comply with the standards, though the officials did not outline them. They require port operators to notify authorities when they have been victimized by a cyberattack. The actions also give the Coast Guard, which regulates the nation’s ports, the ability to respond to cyberattacks.

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Jill Biden is announcing $100 million in funding for research and development into women’s health

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Jill Biden is announcing $100 million in funding for research and development into women’s health

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jill Biden on Wednesday announced $100 million in federal funding for research and development into women’s health as part of a new White House initiative that she is heading up.

The money is the first major deliverable of the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research, which was announced late last year. The money comes from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, which is under the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The first lady announced the ARPA-H Sprint for Women’s Health during an appearance in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Biden has said women don’t know enough about their health because the research historically has been underfunded and lacking. The White House initiative aims to change the approach to and increase funding for women’s health research.

The $100 million will be used to invest early in “life-changing” work being done by women’s health researchers and startup companies that cannot get private support, Biden said.

“We will build a health care system that puts women and their lived experiences at its center,” she said. “Where no woman or girl has to hear that ‘it’s all in your head,’ or, ‘it’s just stress.’” Where women aren’t just an after-thought, but a first-thought. Where women don’t just survive with chronic conditions, but lead long and healthy lives.”

President Joe Biden created the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health in 2022 to work on advancing solutions to health issues. The agency is part of what he called his “ unity agenda.”

In the coming weeks, the agency will solicit ideas for groundbreaking research and development to address women’s health, according to the White House.

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The first lady said last year when the White House initiative was announced in November that it grew out of meeting she had had with Maria Shriver, a women’s health advocate and former California first lady. Shriver, Biden said, spoke of the need for a public-private effort to close the gaps in women’s health research. Shriver also participated in Wednesday’s announcement in Massachusetts.

The White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research is led by Jill Biden and the White House Gender Policy Council.

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