WOBURN -- John Odgren, the suburban special needs student who fatally stabbed a classmate three years ago, was found guilty of murder in the first degree by a Middlesex Superior Court jury today.
The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for about 12 hours before delivering its verdict – rejecting the defense by Odgren’s lawyers that the teenager was legally insane when he stabbed 15-year-old James F. Alenson in the bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School on Jan. 19, 2007.
Odgren now faces a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Superior Court Judge S. Jane Haggerty has scheduled sentencing for Friday morning.
When the jury delivered its verdict, Alenson's family, including his mother, Carman, could be seen and heard crying in apparent relief. They left the courtroom without speaking to reporters.
Across the courtroom, Odgren's parents appeared visibly upset, and after speaking briefly with defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro, they also left the courtroom without speaking to reporters.
Outside the courthouse, Shapiro spoke briefly to the Globe. "We are devastated by the verdict,'' he said.
He said Odgren has an "organic brain disorder'' and should be in the care of a doctor, not prison guards. "He needs help,'' Shapiro said.
Shapiro also criticized the trial judge, Haggerty, for her refusal to tell the jury that Odgren would not be immediately released into the community if they had chosen to find him not guilty by reason of insanity.
"Jurors tend to misunderstand the consequences of that verdict,'' he said, adding that he believes Odgren would have spent decades in a secure state psychiatric hospital if found legally insane.
Meeting reporters separately, Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr. said the evidence in the trial suggested that "red flags'' about the danger Odgren posed to fellow students was missed by school administrators and the special needs program that steered him to the Sudbury school.
"Why was this defendant in a public school?'' Leone asked.
Odgren's parents have filed a wrongful death suit against the Great Opportunities Program and the consultant who oversaw the program, Robert Barnes. In court records, Barnes denies responsibility for Odgren’s acceptance into the program.
Leone also said that the jury reached a fair verdict, one that acknowledged that an innocent teen lost his life that day.
"James would be 18 now. He'd be ready to head off to college,''' Leone. "But we all know that's not going to happen now.''
Odgren’s lawyers did not dispute that he stabbed Alenson, but said he was in a psychotic state that was bred by mental illnesses that were exacerbated by a lifetime of bullying and harassment – driving him to lose touch with reality and act out the violence he had read about in thriller novels.
Typically under an insanity verdict, Odgren would have been sent to a state psychiatric hospital and a judge would determine whether and when he could be released, depending on whether he posed a threat to the public.
The stabbing occurred less than an hour before classes began on a Friday, not long after Alenson donated $5 to a Hurricane Katrina relief fund and headed to the bathroom. There, Odgren stabbed him with a series of deadly wounds: to the liver, to the heart, and to the lung. Alenson, a freshman trumpet player whom Odgren had never met, stumbled outside the bathroom and into a main corridor and collapsed. He was pronounced dead at a Concord hospital.
Stephen Weiss, a fellow student, told jurors he was in a stall when he heard a struggle and Alenson cry for help. Blood spilled in front of Weiss’s stall. The door opened again, and he heard someone leaving.
And then he saw Odgren lying on the floor, cradling himself against a wall, crying out, “Oh God, what have I done.” Odgren told Weiss to go get help, that he would not hurt him. Odgren then left the bathroom, walked away about 15 feet, and returned to Alenson and checked for his pulse. He called for help, according to the accounts of multiple witnesses.
Odgren’s state of mind at the time was the critical question in the trial. Shapiro, his attorney, argued that the severity of the attack snapped Odgren out of a trance, and that he then realized what he had done and called for help.
But Assistant Middlesex District Attorney Daniel Bennett told jurors that Odgren’s planned killing was spoiled by Alenson, who summoned enough strength to stumble into the main hallway, drawing attention to the crime, and ruining Odgren’s escape strategy.
During the trial, both prosecution and defense agreed that Odgren had suffered since he was a child from Asperger’s syndrome, anxiety, attention deficit disorder and mood disorders that include symptoms of bipolar disorder and depression.
Shapiro told jurors, and tried to show during the trial, that the teenager’s mental conditions resulted from a lifetime of bullying, harassment and depression, to the point he was always anxious and paranoid.
He had bounced from public schools, during which he suffered much of the bullying and threatened to kill himself, to independently-run behavioral schools, before he was accepted at the Great Opportunities Program.
But he was fearful, too, according to court testimony. He kept a bat or a toy gun by his bed to make him feel safe, according to court testimony. 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.
According to the testimony, he also tended to regress into what was called a “world of his own making” typical of patients with Asperger’s, a mild form of autism. Odgren’s world was weaved from the fantasy stories of violence and crime he had read, particularly in Stephen King novels.
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. Odgren was so obsessed with the number he would calculate it in his own daily life, in license plate numbers and in his birthday (9-1-90). It made him fear something was going to happen, three behavioral specialists said, testifying for the defense.
And on Jan. 19, Odgren was especially paranoid, the lawyers said – it was the 19th day of the month, the 19th day of the year. It was also the day the killing occurred.
But Dr. Alison Fife, a psychiatrist testifying for prosecutors, said that while Odgren was mentally ill, he was aware of his actions and could control them. She told jurors that Odgren would have mentioned his delusions after the attack, or his fear of the number 19 or The Crimson King, a villain in the King series, if he had just snapped out of a trance.
Bennett told jurors that Odgren’s obsession with violence encouraged him to kill. He told jurors that Odgren fixated on knives and the perfect murder. He noted how no one noticed Odgren acting awkwardly that morning, neither his mother nor the bus drivers who brought him to school.
And he noted that Odgren watched a violent Internet movie that morning, “The Madness Avenger,” before taking the knife with him to school.
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