Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Massachusetts Murder Trial Goes to Jury

On January 19, 2007, John Odgren, a 16 year old sophomore at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Massachusetts, fatally stabbed 15 year old James Alenson, a freshman he had never met. Yesterday, after a three week trial, the case went to the jury.

Odgren, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's disorder, a form of autism, has a "near genius" IQ of 140. He had been in special needs programs since he started school, but had recently been "mainstreamed." He was described as obsessed with violent fantasies and had spoken in class of how to commit a "perfect murder."

There is no question about the basic fact that Odgren attacked Alenson with a large knife he had brought from home. The question the jury will have to decide is whether Odgren should be held responsible for what he did, or found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Here are excerpts from today's Boston Globe:
A Middlesex Superior Court jury yesterday began deliberating the fate of a teenager who was described as both a methodic murderer and a student whose mental sickness drove him to kill, punctuating a high-profile three-week trial that raised questions about the treatment of mental illness in schools and in the courts.

Defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro urged jurors to consider the teenager’s lifetime of mental illness and find him not criminally responsible, by reason of insanity, in the stabbing of student James Alenson in a bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School three years ago.

But Dan Bennett, assistant Middlesex district attorney, called Odgren a calculating killer who thought he was planning the perfect murder, only to see Alenson stumble out of the bathroom and spoil his plans for escape. It was then that Odgren showed regret for his actions, Bennett said.

No one disputed that Odgren stabbed Alenson or that he suffers from mood disorders, depression, anxiety, and Asperger’s disorder, a form of autism and a neurological condition that causes one to lack the social and emotional skills to interact properly with others.

But whether he knew what he was doing and whether he had the ability to control himself — the guidelines in criminal responsibility — will be at issue in jury deliberations.

Three mental health specialists testified for the defense that he was legally insane at the time of the killing, but one psychiatrist testified for prosecutors that Odgren was aware of the consequences of his actions.
I wanted to discuss this murder trial in a blog about ethics because as I see it, the task facing the jury in reaching its verdict is not deciding what the facts were but rather how to interpret them.

Massachusetts takes its definition of "insanity" from the American Law Institute Model Penal Code:
a person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.
There's no doubt that John Odgren suffers from a serious "mental disease or defect." But did that prevent him from knowing that (a) killing James Alenson was wrong and (b) controlling his behavior? And how much "capacity" must he have to be held responsible? Answering those questions involves values as well as facts.

In psychiatric practice I often explored the issue of responsibility with my patients. Assessing with them how much they could steer the course of their own lives and how much they were steered by an ailment that robbed them of self governance was an important part of treatment. Exploring the question was often "therapeutic" in itself, since it involved a respectful view of them as potentially capable of "rational" action despite their illness.

When discussing aberrant behavior with patients and their families I sometimes said "just because X has schizophrenia doesn't deprive him of the right we all have to act like a jerk!" X usually appreciated this attitude. Better to be seen as "acting like a jerk" than to be dismissed as "what can you expect from a nut!"

I've never met John Odgren, and while I followed the trial in the newspaper, I didn't hear the testimony. I'm not sure how I would vote if I was on the jury. But I'd approach the deliberation with the background attitude that psychiatric illness - even severe illness - doesn't necessarily erase our ability to steer our conduct and our responsibility to do so.

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