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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Smart, sullen and deadly: Jury must wrest with Asperger's in MA murder case

Another Tragedy Grips a High School

John Odgren was enrolled in a class on forensic science at his high school, in one of Boston's bucolic suburbs. Always awkward with his classmates, John had started wearing a trench coat and fedora to school. Students who tried to befriend him were put off by his obsession with knives and common discussion of violence. During one class session, John outlined his plan for the perfect murder, which involved luring a trusting acquaintance to a remote location and using a knife to kill him. Classmates were freaked out by John's seemingly cold-hearted calculation and devious planning. As it turned out, they had every reason to be.

Not long afterwards, John Odgren followed a shy sophomore, new to the school, into a bathroom and stabbed him to death with a long knife he had brought to school. Odgren told investigators that he had brought the knife in for protection, convinced by the symbolism in a Stephen King novel that something horrible would happen to him that day. Another student, who just happened to be in one of the stalls, heard the victim call out, "Ow! You're hurting me! Why are you doing this?" The student emerged to find John Odgen sitting on the bathroom floor, knees pulled up to his chest, holding the bloody knife.

As horrifying as this scene is, there would seem to be little remarkable about it from a criminal justice perspective. One person committed a completely unprovoked act of violence against another. The outcome would seem to be clear.

The Psychology of Intent

There is, however, one significant wrinkle to this story. John Odgren has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, which lies along the autism scale. Asperger's sufferers are usually characterized by normal to high intelligence (Odgren allegedly has an IQ of 140), but the inability to experience the empathy necessary to form emotional bonds with others. This disability is often manifested in, among other things, the inability to recognize emotional expressions in others. That is, while you or I can distinguish a smile from a frown (and what each implies), someone with Asperger's Syndrome cannot.

In Massachusetts, the mens rea requirement for first-degree murder is "deliberate and premeditated malice." For second-degree murder, a killer must have experienced "malice aforethought."

Malice aforethought is generally defined as: "the conscious intent to cause death or great bodily harm to another person before a person commits the crime." Note that it must be a conscious intent. So, if a person forms the intent in a hallucinogenic haze, it does not suffice for malice aforethought. 

John Odgren is employing an insanity defense to the murder charge, claiming that his psychological condition (He also has ADHD, a bipolar disorder and possibly OCD) precluded his ability to consciously form the necessary intent to commit murder. Massachusetts has adopted the Model Penal Code definition of "legal insanity." Under this test, "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."

Jury must determine criminal culpability

This murder case then will boil down to a jury's collective decision about whether John Odgren did or did not appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions on the day that he stabbed that fellow student. The trial itself is now complete. The arguments followed fairly predictable lines. The DA emphasized the calculating nature of the crime and its similarities to what John Odgren seems to have been considering for weeks. The defense focused on Odgren's myriad psychological problems, constant harassment at school and increasing obsession with violent books, movies and video games. The defense presented three psychologists who testified that Odgren committed the violent act while essentially in an obsessive trance. They concluded that he was essentially shocked back to reality by observing the horrific consequences of his actions. The DA presented a rebuttal expert who, while not disputing the general diagnoses of Odgren's conditions, concluded he was nonetheless capable of discerning right from wrong.

There are actually two questions to be answered. Even if the jury determines that John Odgren understood the criminality of his actions, the jurors must wrestle with the question of whether he was psychologically capable of resisting his persistent violent urges and compulsions. The final item presented by the DA during closing arguments was an audio recording of Odgren laughing about what investigators found while searching his bedroom. This is intended to show a lack of remorse and an arrogance by Odgren about his ability to get away with the crime. Such callousness can cut both ways, however, as jurors might conclude that anyone who could react that way while in prison for murder must be out of touch with reality.

The need to make sense out of chaos

I believe that the defense strategy in this case was incomplete.

The defense team did a fairly good job of portraying Odgren as a thoroughly disturbed teenager with a  history of mental problems. This is an important linchpin of the case, as it provides an opportunity for those jurors who don't want to hold him responsible to make their arguments. A "not guilty by reason of insanity" vote passes the proverbial sniff test.

Unfortunately, this only provides jurors with half of what they need to achieve emotional satisfaction from a not guilty vote. People need order in their lives. They need to be able to make sense of the world around them. They need to feel some control over their environment. Without this sense of control, life becomes unbearable. This explains, in part, people's visceral fear of the unknown. It also explains attachments to rituals, customs, religions and other systems that preserve the status quo. 

The tragic death at the center of this case -- violent, senseless, seemingly random -- must seriously disturb the jurors' need for order and control. It is a parent's worst nightmare -- the loss of a child in a way that no parent can anticipate. The natural response of the jurors in this case will be to try to impose order on the situation. The idea that this was a freakish, unanticipated, random tragedy, for which no-one is really responsible, will be a completely unbearable option for the jurors. It just won't do.

So, the defense has provided the jurors with reasons not to blame John Odgren for this tragedy. What the defense has failed to do is provide them with someone else to blame. Trust me on this one: the jurors will need to blame someone. The only question is whether they will blame John Odgren or someone else.

had I been advising the defense team in this case, I would have recommended telling a somewhat different story. This is the narrative I would have crafted:

There are two victims in this crime. The dead boy and John Odgren were both failed by a system that too often shuffles emotionally ill children from program to program, treating them like human guinea pigs, testing out their most recent theories of mainstreaming or immersive learning. The so-called experts in this case didn't protect John Odgren from the bullies. They didn't protect John Odgren from the demons in his head. They didn't protect him from himself. And because of their failures, one boy is dead and another might as well be, ruined for life by a disaster that didn't have to happen. The signs were there for years. The thoughts of suicide. The absence of emotional control. The inability to feel any emotions but fear and anger and hate. The psychologists and teachers and school administrators weren't in that bathroom on that terrible, fateful day, but they might as well have been, handing John Odgren his knife.

Would this argument have worked in this case? We will never know (although I suppose we could run some focus group research in other parts of the country). What I do know is that these jurors need a way to direct their grief and their fear and their anger, someone to hold responsible. They need to be able to wrap their brains around the case and conclude that they have identified the villain. The defense had a responsibility to their client to give the jury someone else to blame.

Jurors will speculate about lots of things. Nothing precludes them from assigning blame all over the map in this case, regardless of whether the defense has pointed its finger at any particular candidates. Perhaps the jurors will find their own way to sparing John Odgren in this case. If they do -- if they find him not guilty -- I fully expect to discover that they did so by assigning blame elsewhere. 

As the verdict comes in, I will be sure to report it here on my blog. I'll offer some post-trial comments and I'll keep you abreast of any juror interviews that appear in the press.


  1. Anonymous3:36 AM

    Why not blame his parents? They appear to be rather intelligent, but self absorbed people who ignored their son's problems. Demonize them and you have someone to blame.

  2. Ellicia6:41 PM

    Why in the world was he in a forensic science class. My understanding is that people with Asperger's can hone in on an interest or idea to the exclusion of everything else. Such as the little girl in Florida who recently went missing in the swamp for four days because of her interest in wildlife. Putting him in a forensic science class was like setting the stage for a murderous obsession.

  3. Check out the remarks of Middlesex County District Attorney Gerrard Leone after the verdict. He welcomes the verdict but points his finger at many others in the community who should have seen "red flags" and removed John Odgren from the school. It seems almost as if he was surprised that Odgren's defense team did not play up this angle.