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Boston Channel News
POSTED: 12:19 pm EDT April 27, 2010
Odgren Stabbed Alenson In School Bathroom
Boston – A jury is now working to decide whether a former Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School student’s mental illness drove him to stab a classmate to death in a school bathroom or if he is a calculated killer after testimony wrapped up in John Odgren’s murder trial on Tuesday.
Odgren, of Princeton, was 16 when he stabbed freshman James Alenson, 15, with a large kitchen knife in a boy’s bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School on Jan. 19, 2007.
The defense has never denied that Odgren killed Alenson, but said his mental illness made him legally insane at the time of the slaying, and he cannot be held criminally responsible. Odgren has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression and anxiety.
“When John Odgren was no longer capable of coping with the fear, anxiety and paranoia that had built up within him, he exploded in senseless and unplanned violence,” defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro said.
But prosecutors painted a different picture of the now-19-year-old, saying Odgren was a smart, lucid teen who harbored a dangerous obsession with violent video games and Stephen King books. They say the stabbing was premeditated.
“This is what he chose to leave the house with,” prosecutor Daniel Bennett said, holding up the large kitchen knife, still stained with Alenson’s dried blood, used in the stabbing. “He had a plan; he brought the knife (to school); he made decision to get himself to that bathroom. He hunted out different places. And no matter what the defense says, you don’t take a knife like this instead of a butter knife or a table knife or a steak knife unless you are intending to stab somebody with it. And this is the choice he made for a weapon.”
In its closing, the prosecution played jailhouse recordings of Odgren seeming to poke fun at investigators.
“It’s so funny. They were searching for all that crap. Like, you know, I had the teddy bear next to the shotgun. I did that as a joke and they took it all seriously. They are not the brightest of people I’ve found,” Odgren said in a phone call made about a month after the stabbing.
Before closing arguments, jurors heard discussion about whether signs of Odgren’s mental health were ignored.
On Tuesday, Dr. Alison Fife, a psychiatrist and expert witness for the prosecution, was cross-examined by defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro, who tried to show that the prosecution is asking the jury to ignore warning signs that Odgren’s mood and behavior had changed in the weeks before Alenson’s death.
The defense said changes in Odgren’s clothing habits, as well as changes in his sleep and speech patterns, may have indicated a problem with his medication that could have lead to a manic, paranoid state.
“Bringing the knife might be a reversion to past behaviors when he was fearful or anxious?” Shapiro asked.
“My answer is that it could be related to other things, or it could be related to anxiety,” Fife said.
The jury started deliberating the case late Tuesday afternoon.
If the jury returns a not guilty verdict, Odgren could be sent to a secure mental health facility.
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For Odgren, A Guilty Verdict And A Life Sentence
April 30, 2010
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.
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.