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Odgren sentenced to life in prison

No parole option for teen killer; Lawyer brands ruling ‘barbaric’

By Patricia Wen
Globe Staff / May 1, 2010

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WOBURN — Clutching a jacket like a security blanket and pressing his forehead against a table, special needs student John Odgren was sentenced yesterday to spend the rest of his life in prison, without the possibility of parole, after being convicted of fatally stabbing a fellow student inside Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School three years ago.

Just before Odgren was led away to state prison, his attorney, Jonathan Shapiro, filed a motion with trial Judge S. Jane Haggerty challenging the constitutionality of the 1996 Massachusetts law that requires juveniles older than 14 who are accused of first-degree murder to be tried and sentenced as adults.

Haggerty agreed to consider the question, but had no option but to impose on Odgren — who was 16 when he committed the crime but is 19 now — the same mandatory penalty for first-degree murder as any other adult.

“We think it’s barbaric and uncivilized,’’ said Shapiro, adding that Massachusetts is an outlier nationwide in imposing such penalties on juveniles.

Shapiro, whose view of the law resonates with many other children’s law advocates nationwide, said Odgren does not deserve to languish in adult prison for his remaining years without hope of release.

For many who packed the courtroom yesterday, however, the focus was not on what faces Odgren, an intellectually gifted but deeply troubled young man who was in the grip of violent fantasies. It was on the youth he savagely stabbed and killed.

Four jurors, who were part of the panel that convicted Odgren the day before, voluntarily showed up and sat in a bench behind the family of the victim, 15-year-old James Alenson. After the sentencing, some jurors reached out to the parents of Alenson, shaking their hands and expressing condolences. Some friends and relatives of the Alensons thanked the jurors.

After two weeks of testimony, jurors rejected the defense argument that Odgren was criminally insane when he randomly selected Alenson, whom he did not know, to kill in a school bathroom. The jury also rejected the option of the lesser offense of second-degree murder, which would have made Odgren eligible for parole after 15 years.

Some children’s advocates believe that all juveniles convicted of first-degree murder should be incarcerated as punishment, but deserve some reconsideration of their sentence after 15 years or so. That recommendation was made in a report issued last fall by the Children’s Law Center in Lynn.

“We know teenagers are uniquely capable of change and growth,’’ Barbara Kaban, deputy director of the Children’s Law Center, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Kaban said almost every other state in the country gives judges discretion in sentencing juveniles who have been convicted of first-degree murder.

According to the Law Center, only Massachusetts and Connecticut impose mandatory life sentences without parole on children as young as 14 who are convicted of first-degree murder, regardless of circumstances, and require them to be tried in adult court. Other states can impose such life-without-parole sentences on juveniles, but it is at the discretion of the judge.

Kaban pointed out that the Supreme Court may issue a ruling any day on two Florida cases that questioned the constitutionality of committing juveniles to life prison terms without parole. Depending on the final ruling, the decision could have an impact on juvenile sentencing laws across the country, she said.

The culpability of a juvenile, particularly one with a history of mental illness, was the central issue in Odgren’s murder trial.

Prosecutor Daniel Bennett portrayed Odgren, who had a history of secretly bringing knives to school and enjoying violent novels, as carefully planning the “perfect murder’’ and carrying it out when he killed Alenson in 2007. Odgren had arrived at the public high school just a few months earlier as part of a small special needs program. It was Odgren’s first attempt at a regular public school after having spent at least several years in alternative programs that tried to address his Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, as well as hyperactivity, anxiety, and mood disorders, along with symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Bennett acknowledged that Odgren did suffer from some mental illness; however, he said it did not meet the standards of an insanity defense. To be considered not guilty by reason of insanity, the jury would have to believe that Odgren had a mental illness or defect that prevented him from understanding the law or conforming his behavior to the law.

Odgren’s attorney, though, told jurors that Odgren had a break with reality when he confronted Alenson in the bathroom shortly after 7 on that winter morning three years ago.

According to court testimony, Odgren brought a knife to school, then went to a bathroom as if waiting for a victim. It was Jan. 19, 2007 — a day with ominous import to Odgren because it was the 19th day of the year and he had read Stephen King novels in which that number served as a harbinger of some type of dark event, according to court testimony.

When Alenson entered the bathroom, Odgren attacked him with his knife, stabbing him repeatedly and piercing his major organs. After the stabbing, a fellow student in a bathroom stall heard Odgren say, “Oh, my God, what have I done?’’

At yesterday’s sentencing, the Alenson family gave the judge four victim impact statements, but did not want them read aloud. The victim’s parents and two siblings have refrained from public comment throughout the trial. Odgren’s parents, along with the eldest of their two sons, also declined comment, as they have throughout the case.

Shapiro said one of his chief concerns is trying to convince state Correction officials that Odgren should now be placed in the state psychiatric hospital in Bridgewater, not an adult prison. Odgren was scheduled to be taken, at least initially, to MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole, a maximum-security prison.

“We’ll do our best to ensure he’s safe,’’ he said.

Under state law, Odgren’s first-degree murder conviction will be automatically reviewed by the Supreme Judicial Court.

Shapiro said Odgren remains on at least three psychotropic drugs, and he has been weeping and stunned by the verdict. He said he had been comforted by a stuffed bunny, which he was allowed to embrace during breaks in the trial.

Correction officials, however, are prohibiting him from bringing the stuffed animal into prison, Shapiro said. The attorney said Odgren will also be on suicide watch, given his mental state.

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.

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