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Adrian Walker

Jury’s task is unenviable

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / April 26, 2010

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There’s an old, classic movie — “Twelve Angry Men’’ — in which the dozen members of the jury bring all their life experiences into the jury room. It makes for gripping drama.

The jury deciding the fate of John Odgren this week may find itself in similar territory.

Odgren is being tried on charges of first-degree murder after stabbing a fellow student, James Alenson, at Lincoln-Sudbury High three years ago. You will notice that I did not say he “allegedly’’ stabbed Alenson. Odgren has never denied stabbing him, not for one minute.

Instead, Odgren and his lawyers have denied that he knew what he was doing, and this is where things get sticky. A battery of therapists testified in Odgren’s defense last week that he was insane at the moment he stabbed his schoolmate, whom he did not know. He reportedly asked “What have I done?’’ right after, which some doctors view as a sign that he had snapped back into reality.

Today the prosecution is expected to call its own psychiatrists, who will argue that Odgren was capable of understanding his actions and acting within the law. Sometime tomorrow, the jury will get its chance to decide which experts it agrees with, and to render a verdict.

Generally speaking, juries hate the insanity defense. Many jurors seem to view it as an attempt to evade responsibility. They believe any insanity should have been addressed before it cost another person his life. Finally, they just aren’t comfortable making, in effect, a medical diagnosis.

So they punt.

Analyzing Odgren would be a challenge for anybody. He supposedly combines a genius-level IQ with Asperger syndrome — an autism spectrum disorder characterized by difficulty with social interaction — and mild depression. He devours Stephen King novels, and may have drawn violent inspiration from one of them. Apparently, he hopes King will drop by one day for a visit; he considered putting the novelist on his prison guest list.

Odgren’s chances of acquittal probably won’t be helped by the incorrect perception that finding him not guilty by reason of insanity would allow him to walk free. At a minimum, he would be in for major psychiatric evaluation, probably followed by a long stay at a state mental hospital.

One of the real issues here is a criminal justice system that demands black or white outcomes, with no room for gray. According to the expert testimony, Odgren has major psychological issues, which probably did help drive him to violence.

One could argue that anyone who kills must be at least a little crazy, and indeed that argument has been used to counteract the insanity defense. But there is a difference between being violent and losing touch with reality.

The truth is, a lot of people don’t think it matters if a killer was insane. In their eyes, the purpose of the court system is to dispense punishment, to settle the score, to reassure a nervous public that someone who did a bad thing will never be able to do it again. As far as they are concerned, if someone is sane enough to wield a knife or pull a trigger, he or she is sane enough to go to prison for it.

And they have a point. No matter what drove Odgren to snap in a school bathroom, a teenager who would be graduating from high school now will never see that day. Odgren isn’t the victim here.

I don’t know how a jury goes about deciding which psychiatrists are right and which are wrong. Just the fact that equally qualified people can come to diametrically opposed conclusions is testament to how complicated these judgments are.

So I don’t envy the jury. They will be charged to follow the law, but they will be bound to follow their feelings, too, and inevitably be guided by their personal experiences as they weigh culpability against psychology.

Ultimately, there is only one simple fact in this case: that it is a tragedy for all concerned.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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