Friday, April 30, 2010

Jury Convicts John Odgren of First Degree Murder

After a relatively short 12 hour deliberation, a Massachusetts jury found John Odgren guilty of first degree murder. Odgren, who was 16 at the time of the crime, will receive a mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

Unless jurors speak with the press we won't know about their reasoning. But the verdict suggests that they set a high bar for the insanity defense. There was no doubt that Odgren is a severely disturbed young person. As part of Asperger's syndrome he was obsessed with fantasies of violence, and testimony suggested a significant degree of paranoia. But testimony also showed that he had ruminated about how to commit a "perfect murder" - ruminations that were carried out in the killing of 15 year old James Alenson.

From the published account of the prosecution's psychiatric expert's testimony, it appears that the prosecution relied on a common sense form of argument. If Odgren was in a state that prevented him from comprehending the wrongness of his actions or from governing himself, the expert said, we would expect those characteristics to show themselves after the crime.

This didn't happen. Odgren was quoted as saying "What have I done?" and seeking help for Alenson.

I imagine someone on the jury asking "is there anyone on this panel who has never done something we knew to be wrong?" The jury's analysis may have been that while the fantasies of violence and the unrealistic fears Ogdren suffered from were different from the more ordinary temptations and impulses that are common in life, they should have been resisted (their ethical analysis) and could have been resisted (their factual analysis).

It's heartbreaking to contemplate James Alenson's death. But Ogdren's situation is also tragic. The testimony left no doubt that he suffered for most of his 16 years before the murder, and will now spend a lifetime in jail. I hope that as he, and his brain, mature, he will find ways of using his intelligence to do something positive in prison, and for the wider world. He might be able to provide some understanding of what could help prevent tragedies of this kind from happening in the future.

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