WBUR

At Odgren Trial, Question Isn’t What, But Why

WOBURN, Mass. — Middlesex County jurors resume deliberations Wednesday in the case of teenager John Odgren, who is charged with first degree murder in the stabbing death of a fellow student at Lincoln-Sudbury High School in January 2007.

On Tuesday, 11 days after the evidentiary phase of the trial began at the Superior Court here, defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro began his summary of the case.

“This trial is not about what happened in the bathroom of Lincoln-Sudbury High School on the morning of January 19, 2007. We know what happened. The question is why it happened,” Shapiro said.

John Odgren sits during his murder trial at Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn on Monday. (AP)

The answer, according to the defense, resides in the biochemistry and mental wiring of the 19-year-old sitting at the end of the defense table — who, Shapiro would argue, was insane when he killed his 15-year-old classmate James Alenson.

The key to the verdict in an insanity defense rests upon the issue of criminal responsibility, set out by Superior Court Judge Jane Haggerty in long instructions. Did John Odgren have the capacity to know that what he was doing was wrong? Did he have the capacity “to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law?”

Shapiro recounted the pitiful history of a boy with the sound of “a million bees buzzing in his head” and with no friends other than a stuffed rabbit.

Citing the testimony of three behavioral specialists who had testified for the defense, Shapiro spoke of Odgren’s Asperger’s syndrome — a mild form of autism — depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies as early as age nine. He said those challenges grew into fear and paranoia in Odgren’s first year at high school.

“And he exploded in senseless and unplanned violence,” Shapiro said, as Odgren sat silently in the courtroom, avoiding eye contact, staring downward and fidgeting with a pen in his mouth.

Prosecutor Daniel Bennett brought forth a 12-inch, blood-stained carving knife.

“He starts to slash and stab and not randomly. You’ve got a stab wound to the liver, through the ribs, into the lungs and right through the heart,” Bennett said. “He’s picking spots to kill.”

Bennett emphasized the violence of Odgren’s killing of Alenson, who Odgren didn’t even know. He insisted that Odgren knew what he was doing — and knew it was wrong.

That’s why he was hiding the knife when he came to school, Bennett said.

“He does have mental health problems, but that’s not why he’s in the bathroom killing,” Bennett said. “He’s in the bathroom because he wants to kill.”

Bennett said that Odgren, with an I.Q. of a 140, wanted to pull off the perfect crime and thought he could get away with it.

But the defense maintained it was fear and delusion that were driving Odgren. Because of his Asperger’s, he had became the object of relentless bullying and teasing.

As he struggled with academic and social challenges after entering Lincoln-Sudbury High, Odgren began bringing toy guns and folding knives to school, Shapiro reminded the jurors. He said it was the compulsive tendencies of Asperger’s syndrome that led Odgren to become obsessed with the Stephen King series “The Dark Tower,” a violent computer game and the number 19, the day on which he killed James Alenson.

The killing happened “in a frenzy fueled by his delusional belief that something terrible was going to happen to him. He did not plan it. He did not intend to do it,” Shapiro said.

The state has the burden of proving that this was not the case, that Odgren knew what he was doing. But the infrequency of defendants being found not guilty by reason of insanity suggests the practical burden is on John Odgren to convince the jurors he’s insane.

So in a trial replete with gruesome evidence and opposing psychiatrists, Tuesday’s closing arguments of the prosecution and defense clashed not over the killing, but over the issue of criminal responsibility.

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  • Matt

    ***He said it was the compulsive tendencies of Asperger’s syndrome that led Odgren to become obsessed with the Stephen King series “The Dark Tower,” a violent computer game ***

    His parents let him down. Why did they allow him to read violent books or play violent computer games? Now their little freak is going to spend the rest of his life in prison. The only remaining justice would be forcing them to pay for his incarceration.

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