Knowing that I’m a criminal defense attorney, a lot of people have approached me lately and expressed shock that Massachusetts murder suspect Jeffrey Yao could slip through the law enforcement and judicial cracks that he slipped through, given the extensive history of worrisome reports and complaints about his strange behavior that were reported to authorities by both Winchester High School students and adult residents of the Winchester neighborhood were he lived. These reports of his bizarre behavior reportedly spanned six years. By now millions across the country know this horrific story: That on Saturday, February 24, Yao walked casually into a public library in the small Massachusetts town of Winchester, carrying a ten inch hunting knife, and stabbed a young medical student by the name of Deane Kenny Stryker, to death. He stabbed her at least 20 times; when she finally fell to the floor, the hunting knife was still in her neck.
This is a scene out of a “Friday the 13th” film. It is beyond comprehension.
“How in God’s name could this person have been set free, once he was arrested for trying to maniacally break into a neighbor’s home?”, people have asked. “How could six years of people reporting his unstable and frightening behavior have been treated so lightly?” “This was entirely preventable!” “What is wrong with the law enforcement and court systems?”
These and many other questions are all justified. I’m not going to speak from ego here; I’m not going to become defensive because I’m an attorney. I’m not going to wax on about constitutional rights and procedural legal safeguards. A young person has been savagely murdered; taken from her loved ones and the word, far too young. And it was preventable.
The Boston Globe has reported that for more than six years, fellow students in the Winchester school system, neighbors and other reported Yao’s dangerous and mentally unstable behavior to school and police authorities. In 2012, a former schoolmate of Yao’s reported Yao to Winchester school administrators, worried that Yao was a “threat to student safety,” after Yao reportedly posted several gun-related items on social media, including a video recorded by the person who shot 32 people to death at Virginia Tech in 2007.
That student wrote in February 2012, “I believe that tonight’s posts signify a true issue, and I wanted to notify someone before it could become a larger issue,” the student wrote in an e-mail to Thomas Gwin, the then-principal at Winchester High School. “I hope that I am not sounding too frenzied or incendiary, but I truly do not want WHS students to be at risk.”
This former student told the Boston Globe that subsequently met with the school principal, a vice principal, and a Winchester police school resource officer. He said everyone in attendance seemed to take his worry seriously. Yet, little to nothing appears to have been done.
Neighbors of Yao’s also told the media that they feared him, whom they said had tried break into several homes, had violently smashed glass objects in the road, had shattered his own windows, and had made threatening gestures to passersby on the streets where he lived. One neighbor said she was so afraid of Yao that she felt the need to run to her car every morning when going to work. This person reportedly told police last summer that she and other residents feared Yao. Residents reportedly kept their children in their houses, and kept baseball bats nearby.
Yet despite all this, Yao walked the streets, until one day he walked into the Winchester Public Library and slashed a young woman to death. Something went terribly wrong here, and the problem is likely to be more systemic than isolated. I’ll discuss why in Part Two of this post. In the meantime, my thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Deane Kenny Stryker.