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Psychiatrist says teen was anxious on day of killing

Legal associate Amanda Vanderhorst comforted John Odgren, who put on a coat over his suit during proceedings at his murder trial yesterday in Woburn. Odgren faces life in prison, but his lawyers argue that he is not guilty by reason of insanity. Legal associate Amanda Vanderhorst comforted John Odgren, who put on a coat over his suit during proceedings at his murder trial yesterday in Woburn. Odgren faces life in prison, but his lawyers argue that he is not guilty by reason of insanity. (Photos By Josh Reynolds/Pool via Associated Press)
By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / April 22, 2010

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WOBURN — A child psychiatrist testified in the murder trial of John Odgren yesterday that the mentally disturbed teenager had an obsession with violence and viewed the date he killed a fellow student, Jan. 19, 2007, as ominous because the number 19 was a recurring sign in a Stephen King thriller series.

The psychiatrist, Richard Barnum, said that Odgren told him during an examination a year after the killing that he felt anxious and agitated the morning of Jan. 19, as if something important was going to happen that day. King used the number 19 repeatedly as a sign, beacon, or portent in his seven-part fantasy thriller, “The Dark Tower,’’ which Odgren had become fixated on.

Odgren told Barnum he feared he would be attacked and brought a knife to school that day. Instead it was Odgren, then a 16-year-old special needs student at Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School, who was on the attack. He fatally stabbed James Alenson, an unsuspecting freshman, in the boys bathroom, a brutal attack Odgren says he cannot remember.

Barnum, a state-certified psychiatrist specializing in child psychology, was appointed by Odgren’s lawyers, with court approval, to determine the teenager’s mindset at the time of the stabbing. Barnum told a Middlesex Superior Court jury yesterday that Odgren’s obsession with violence and “The Dark Tower’’ series, bred by mental disorders including Asperger’s disorder, caused him to have a “meltdown.’’

“John’s agitation and anxiety . . . were so severe he was essentially psychotic,’’ Barnum testified. “He had no ability to determine what was real, what wasn’t real. . . . He had essentially no idea what was happening.’’

Odgren faces life in prison, but his lawyers argue that he is not guilty by reason of insanity. If he is found insane, Odgren would be sent for mental evaluation at a state psychiatric hospital, but would not be released until a judge declares he would not be a danger to the public.

Barnum testified that Odgren meets the criteria set by the state Supreme Judicial Court to be ruled not guilty by reason of insanity: He suffered from a mental illness or defect and that defect caused him to fail to understand the seriousness of the crime he was committing, and caused him to lose self-control.

Prosecutors, led by Assistant Middlesex District Attorney Dan Bennett, contend that Odgren was aware of his actions and that his fascination with violence fueled a desire to kill. Prosecutors plan to present several mental health professionals to rebut Barnum’s testimony.

Previously, Odgren’s father Paul testified of his son’s troubled childhood. Socially awkward because of his mental illnesses, John Odgren faced further agitation and anxiety over the bullying by his peers, the father said. But under cross-examination by Bennett yesterday, the father acknowledged that he never told his son to stop reading the King thrillers and that he had not notified school officials about the meaning of the 19th day of the month to his son.

In one dramatic moment, Paul Odgren was shown the bloodied knife his son used to kill Alenson, and he acknowledged that it came from his home kitchen set.

Several times yesterday, Alenson’s parents left the courtroom during graphic testimony.

Barnum said yesterday that he diagnosed Odgren with Asperger’s, a form of autism that can be difficult for others to recognize as a mental disorder. People with Asperger’s can, for example, have an impressive speaking ability, and shortcomings in their social skills may not seem out of the ordinary. But people with Asperger’s can get frustrated in confusing environments, and like others with autism, can fixate on a single subject to avoid having to socialize. Barnum said he also diagnosed Odgren as having a mood disorder, to explain his symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The mix of disorders caused Odgren to be awkward in grade school, and the teasing and bullying he suffered caused him to become agitated, Barnum said.

He said Odgren showed signs of exploding when, during grade school, he had threatened to kill himself and when, in another incident, he stabbed a student in the chest with a pencil because he was being bullied.

Barnum said Odgren’s difficulties at school caused him to retreat into his fascination with thriller novels, to the point he started to mix the stories with reality. He wore a fedora and trench coat, and started to call himself Jack, the name of the character in “The Dark Tower’’ series.

Just as in the series, Jan. 19 was the day something was going to happen, Odgren later told Barnum. Odgren grabbed a carving knife from his family’s kitchen for protection and tucked it in his belt. Once at school, he sought refuge, or isolation, in a classroom, a library, and then in a school bathroom.

Odgren told Barnum all he could remember was being near the urinal, feeling as if someone touched him on the back, and then waking up to find blood on his hands and on the floor. A trail of blood led outside to where Alenson lay dying.

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