Massachusetts High School Murder: Another Tragic Ending?

In my last entry, I spoke about how the evidence in the 1996 John Salvi murder case was overflowing with expert testimony that Salvi was insane at the time of the abortion clinic murders that he committed. Despite this, many observers wished there existed a death penalty in Massachusetts. To those who said this, (including non-attorney friends of mine) I argued that it was patently clear from both expert and non-expert testimony in that trial, that John Salvi was mentally ill, and hence that he should not be found “Guilty,” but instead “Not Guilty By Reason Of Insanity.” Yet, when people hear those first two words in an emotionally charged case such as the Salvi case, and now in the Odgren case, too many just can’t seem to handle it. Some just ‘blow up.’ The truth is, they can’t grasp this verdict. They don’t understand it. They think it means the defendant is freed from his handcuffs, to walk out of the courthouse. While the truth is far from this, at least the average person wasn’t instructed on this fact, as was the John Salvi jury. They knew the difference, which is:

A verdict of “Not Guilty By Reason Of Insanity” doesn’t mean the defendant didn’t commit the act. It doesn’t mean that he or she won’t be incarcerated for either a very, very long time or possibly life. The truth: The defendant will be locked away in a state correctional facility – it will just have a different sign on the front of it: A state hospital for the criminally insane. All this verdict means is that – legally – the defendant cannot be held to the same standard of judgment that a sane person would be held to (say, a gang member or mobster who killed for money).

But if anyone needs an example of just how resistant people are to the first two words in a verdict of “Not Guilty By Reason Of Insanity”, consider this: The jury in the John Salvi case knew the difference between this verdict, and a straight “Guilty” verdict. The knew the consequences of both. They knew that Salvi would not be released if they returned a verdict of Not Guilty By Reason Of Insanity – they knew he would be locked away. And yet they still judged this man as though he were entirely sane. Verdict: Guilty. Result: Life in prison in Cedar Junction state prison (formerly, and still, called “Walpole State Prison”) –housing the most violent, sadistic criminals the state has ever seen.

A few months later, after being thrown into this general prison population of the most violent thugs in the state, John Salvi hung himself in his prison cell.

A terrible loss? I’m not saying that. Neither am I trying to create a kind of post-mortem sympathy for John Salvi (though his life was pitiable). But I am saying his conviction on this charge was a terrible tragedy. And this tragedy – compounded by the deaths of two innocent people – is that a clearly insane man, obviously incapable of conforming his actions to the law as you and I can – was judged to be perfectly sane, and given a sentence that any sane, hired gun would get: Life in Walpole State Prison.

The Salvi jury didn’t deliver justice. It delivered vengeance. And that is anything but what should have happened.

Have we learned anything since then?

I hope we have, because another trial is about to take place in Massachusetts, equally horrific, equally tragic and equally baffling. No one yet knows for certain what the evidence will reveal in this case. It could be that young Odgren does not in any way suffer from a defect in reasoning that his lawyer will almost surely claim. It could be he was perfectly aware of what he was doing when he killed his young classmate. If that is the case, then let the verdict, and the punishment, fit the crime.

But if the medical evidence in this case speaks to the conclusion that this boy was mentally incapable of understanding what he did, then I for one hope this jury will listen, unlike the jury in the Salvi case.

I asked previously: Will the jury in this case ignore the medical evidence as the jury did in the 1996 John Salvi murder trial in Norfolk County, Massachusetts and act out of emotion and vengeance? We will compound this tragedy even further, and throw this 17-year-old into Walpole State Prison, if the truth is he belongs locked in a psychiatric facility?

Let us wait for the evidence, and hope that, this time, true justice is done.

A later blog will follow on a possible solution to these types of emotionally charged cases: The “Professional Jury.”