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A judge Friday sentenced 19-year-old John Odgren, of Princeton, to life in prison without the possibility of parole in Middlesex Superior Court. The sentencing was a formality, because it automatically follows Odgren's conviction Thursday of murdering a high school classmate at Lincoln-Sudbury High School in 2007.
The issue at the heart of the trial, as well as the heat of the reactions to the verdict, was the defense of insanity used unsuccessfully by the defense.
The jury had started deliberations with the fact, undisputed by the defense, that Odgren, then a 16-year-old special needs student, had killed a 15-year-old student with a carving knife in a bathroom at their high school.
For the jurors, the challenge was to decide whether Odgren was insane at the time. It only took the Middlesex County jurors a day and a half to decide that he was not.
When the jury re-entered the court, the lead juror told the court that Odgren had been found "guilty of pre-meditated malice aforethought and extreme atrocity and cruelty."
Murder in the first degree. Consigned to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the soft-featured 19-year-old with fuzzy hair, glasses and a genius IQ slumped in his chair.
Not far away, the mother of the victim, James Alenson, — a boy who didn't even know his killer — sobbed as she had during the sometimes gruesome testimony. Odgren's parents betrayed no emotion, and left without comment.
It was the lawyers who were most emotional.
"We were absolutely devastated by the verdict," said Jonathan Shapiro, Odgren's defense attorney. This was not the first time Shapiro had used the insanity defense and failed, as do the great majority of attorneys who use what's considered "a defense of last resort."
But Shapiro had marshaled an energetic case, buttressed by three noted mental health specialists. And Shapiro had clashed with the judge over her refusal to tell the jurors, or allow him to tell them, that finding Odgren not guilty by reason of insanity would not result in his going free.
"We just can't comprehend how jurors could disregard the overwhelming evidence of John Odgren's severe and lifelong mental illness," Shapiro said.
In contrast, District Attorney Gerry Leone, who had won the guilty verdict, was more angry than he was appreciative. He lashed out at the defense.
"They wanted us to believe that this murder occurred during a 20-second delusional psychotic outburst but that it was bracketed by things they attributed to Asperger's," Leone said.
Asperger's syndrome or disorder is a mild form of autism. And even the state's expert agreed that Odgren suffered from Asperger's since childhood, along with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and other disorders.
But Leone asserted that Asperger's only triggers violence in extreme circumstances. Those circumstances were not in place, he said, when Odgren killed his classmate. "And obviously the jury saw through that," Leone said.
The jury could have convicted Odgren of the lesser crime of second-degree murder. For Shapiro, the verdict compounded the injustice, because Odgren, who was a juvenile at the time of the killing, was tried and sentenced as an adult.
"As far as the sentencing is concerned, we think the mandatory sentence of life without parole is barbaric and uncivilized," Shapiro said.
With equal indignation, the Leone pointed ominously at the process by which Odgren was accepted into the Lincoln-Sudbury High School and allowed to remain there.
"The defendant shouldn't have been in a position to kill James Alenson," Shapiro said.
A civil lawsuit by the Alenson family has targeted the special education program that brought Odgren into Lincoln-Sudbury High School. After the verdict yesterday, Leone targeted unnamed people he said knew Odgren's history — both the predictors and warning signs — and played a role in getting Odgren into the school and keeping him there.
"And if those people knew the facts we now that's unacceptable," he said.
But Leone said his office has investigated whether there are grounds for pursuing charges of criminal liability and determined there are not.
Still, the dispute over the insanity — if not the danger — of John Odgren won't end soon.
Updated: This story was updated to reflect Odgren's sentencing.
This program aired on April 30, 2010.
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