WOBURN – Clutching a jacket like a security blanket and pressing his forehead against a table, special needs student John Odgren was sentenced today to mandatory life imprisonment without parole for killing fellow student James F. Alenson inside Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School on Jan. 19, 2007.
Middlesex Superior Court Judge S. Jane Haggerty imposed the mandatory sentence after Alenson's family – his parents and two younger siblings – chose to express themselves in written statements, rather than reading victim impact statements in open court. The court clerk and the Middlesex district attorney's office said the statements would not be made public, at least partly at the request of the family.
Before sentencing him, Haggerty rejected defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro's request that she immediately declare unconstitutional the state's youthful offender law, which mandates that when juveniles over 14 are convicted of first-degree murder, they must be given the adult sentence of life with no parole.
Odgren was 16 years old when he killed Alenson. He is now 19.
"We think it's barbaric and uncivilized," said Shapiro during the brief proceeding, which lasted only about 15 minutes.
Shapiro, who filed a written motion asking that Haggerty hold a hearing on the issue, said the punishment violates the "cruel and unusual punishment" provision of the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution, as well as Article 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, the state's Constitution.
Shapiro said that minors convicted of first-degree murder should have a right to be paroled. The defense motion can be found here.
Haggerty said she would review the motion.
Shapiro said the law is inhumane and that he plans to argue that the brain of a 16-year-old is far too plastic and evolving to deserve a life sentence. Shapiro said that as far as he knows, the constitutionality of the law has never been tested in the Massachusetts courts.
When asked later about Shapiro's criticism of the law, Middlesex District Attorney Gerard Leone Jr. said the issue "is not my focus right now."
He said he is pleased the jury held Odgren accountable for his crimes, though he would be "open to being part of the discussion" if state authorities want to revisit the fairness of the law affecting first-degree murder convicts who are juveniles.
The jury deliberated for 12 hours over three days, arriving at the verdict shortly after 2 p.m. Thursday. The defense had asked them to find Odgren not guilty by reason of insanity, but Assistant District Attorney Daniel Bennett had argued Odgren planned the "perfect murder" and carried it out when he killed Alenson.
As has been the case since the trial began in earnest two weeks ago, Alenson's family was in the courtroom. But today they were joined by a larger group of relatives and friends. Four jurors, who were present in the courtroom, declined to comment to a Globe reporter about their deliberations.
But as the Alensons left the courtroom, some of the jurors approached them and ended up exchanging handshakes with some. Voices from the group that included Alenson's parents could also be heard saying, "Thank you.''
Odgren's parents, Paul and Dorothy Odgren, and his older brother, were also in the courtroom today, huddled together. The family declined comment, referring question to Shapiro.
Shapiro said one of his chief immediate concerns is trying to convince state correction officials that Odgren should not be placed in a prison cell, but in the state psychiatric hospital in Bridgewater. After today's sentencing, he said, Odgren was scheduled to be taken to MCI-Cedar Junction, a maximum security prison.
"We'll do our best to ensure he's safe," he said.
Shapiro said Odgren remains on at least three psychotropic drugs, and has been weeping and stunned by the result. He said he had been comforted by a stuffed bunny, which he was allowed to embrace during breaks in the trial.
However, he said, court officials are prohibiting him from bringing that stuffed animal into prison, Shapiro said. The attorney said Odgren will also be on suicide watch given his mental state.
Under state law, Odgren's first-degree murder conviction will be automatically reviewed by the Supreme Judicial Court.
Other issues the defense plans to raise on appeal, according to Shapiro, include his belief that Haggerty erred in refusing to instruct the jury that finding Odgren criminally insane would not mean a near-instant return to the community, a scenario jurors may have been loath to endorse.
Shapiro had requested that jurors be told that, in reality, Odgren would have spent much of his remaining life “committed to a mental institution.’’ The defense had argued that Odgren was not criminally culpable because he had a mental illness or defect that prevented him from understanding the law and conforming his behavior to the law.
Typically, a defendant found not guilty by reason of insanity is sent to a state psychiatric hospital and a judge would determine when the individual could be released, depending on whether the person poses a threat to the public.
But after hearing two weeks of testimony, the jurors found that Odgren, who brought a knife to school that morning, had planned his crime and showed extreme cruelty.
An intellectually precocious teenager with a history of mental illness and violent fantasies, he showed little visible emotion and kept his head bowed as the jury forewoman read the verdict.
Leone said Thursday that the verdict showed that jurors dismissed the defense’s assertion that Odgren had a “20-second’’ delusional episode in the bathroom that winter morning, then snapped back into reality as soon as he saw Alenson’s bleeding body. Odgren did not know Alenson.
Leone said he hoped the conviction sends a message to communities about the importance of picking up on signs that a mentally disturbed teenager may turn homicidally violent.
He said there were numerous red flags in Odgren’s life, which should have prevented him from transferring from a special needs school with intense services to a large, sprawling public high school.
“The defendant shouldn’t have been in a position to kill James Alenson,’’ he said.
Leone stopped short of blaming specific educators at Lincoln-Sudbury or any of the other public and private schools Odgren attended. Leone focused on staff who over many years turned a blind eye to signs that Odgren was capable of killing.
Leone said Odgren ended up choosing, as a random target, a fellow student known for his gentle and kind personality, as well as his love of the New England Patriots, music, and summer camp.
Alenson was “a young man who had everything to live for,’’ Leone said.
Originally from Princeton, Odgren arrived at Lincoln-Sudbury in fall 2006 as part of the Great Opportunities Program, designed to integrate special needs students into a school population. In the few years before that, Odgren had attended a number of alternative programs that tried to meet his academic and behavioral needs.
He was diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder, a form of autism often marked by high intelligence and poor social skills; he was also diagnosed with numerous mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, hyperactivity disorder, mood disorders, and symptoms of bipolar disorder.
According to witnesses, he was repeatedly bullied in school settings and was becoming consumed by the world of violence he read about in thriller novels.
Odgren’s parents met with the Great Opportunities coordinator to raise concerns about his behavior, according to court testimony. He started sleeping less, his speech was rapid, and he again started dressing in a long rider’s coat, called a trench coat by other students, and a fedora. His parents had taken the rider’s coat away from him.
He also brought knives to school on several occasions and told school officials and counselors that they made him feel safer, according to court testimony.
At Lincoln-Sudbury, he often called himself Jack, a reference to a heroic character in one of the Stephen King stories he had read, witnesses said.
Odgren was also fixated on the number 19, a symbolic number from King’s “The Dark Tower’’ series that serves as a beacon of some type of event. He grew paranoid about that number, and it figured into the date of the killing of Alenson, his attorneys said.
On Jan. 19, 2007, Alenson donated $5 to a Hurricane Katrina relief fund and headed to a school bathroom. There, Odgren stabbed him in a series of deadly wounds: to the liver, to the heart, and to the lung.
Alenson stumbled out of the bathroom and into a main corridor and collapsed. Student Stephen Weiss, who was in the bathroom, said he saw Odgren lying on the floor, cradling himself against a wall, crying out, “Oh, my God, what have I done?’’
Odgren told Weiss to go get help, that he would not hurt him. Odgren then left the bathroom, walked about 15 feet, and returned to Alenson and checked his pulse. Alenson was pronounced dead later that day at a Concord hospital.
“James would be 18 now. He’d be ready to go off to college,’’ Leone said. “But we all know that’s not going to happen now.’’
Wen can be reached at email@example.com.
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