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Odgren loses bid for lower sentence

Judge troubled by life term, but won’t reduce conviction

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By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / September 16, 2010

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Citing her legal limitations, a Superior Court judge refused yesterday to alter the conviction of John Odgren, the mentally troubled teenager who was sentenced in April to life in prison for killing a fellow high school student three years ago.

But the controversy over the teen’s sentencing may not be over.

In a 12-page decision, Middlesex Superior Court Judge S. Jane Haggerty also raised concern with the idea of sending a juvenile to prison for life without the eligibility of parole, even for murder, an issue that has been on the radar screen of youth advocates in recent years.

“As a judge, one troublesome issue in this case lies not in the verdict but in the sentence,’’ Haggerty said, adding that, “There is tragedy in a sentence of imprisonment for life without the possibility of a parole for a 16-year-old offender in the circumstances of the defendant.’’

The judge was restricted in her decision to the question of whether to reduce the conviction.

But Jonathan Shapiro, a lawyer for Odgren, said the ruling provides hope for a challenge to the sentence based on constitutional grounds.

Odgren, now 19, was convicted of first-degree murder in April in the January 2007 slaying of 15-year-old James Alenson, a freshman trumpet player at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School whom he had never met.

Lawyers for Odgren argued unsuccessfully that he should have been found not guilty by reason of insanity, because he suffered from years of bullying and from mental disorders that forced him into a “fantasy world of his own making,’’ from which he carried out the killing. Odgren, then 16, brought a knife to school and viciously stabbed Alenson in the school bathroom, and his lawyers said he was in a state of paranoia bred by his fascination with violence novels.

Prosecutors had argued that he long planned to carry out the “perfect murder.’’

In a rare legal request, Odgren’s lawyers had asked Haggerty to reduce the conviction of first-degree murder, requiring a sentence of life without parole, to a lesser charge of second-degree murder, which would make Odgren eligible for parole after serving 15 years of a life sentence. That would mean Odgren could be released while he is in his 30s.

Shapiro argued that judges are allowed to reduce sentences to make them “consonant with justice,’’ and said that Odgren’s age and his mental disorders — he suffered from depression and Asperger’s syndrome, among other ailments — made him unable to plan out the attack and to consciously conduct it with cruelty and atrocity, requirements for a first-degree murder conviction.

Haggerty, acknowledging judges have the authority to change a verdict, refused to do so, saying it should be done only to conform with justice and that she should not act as a “thirteenth juror.’’

Haggerty said that while, “sitting as a juror, I might not have been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was capable of deliberate premeditation or extreme atrocity or cruelty,’’ she also found no evidence that would require her to change the sentence of first-degree murder.

“My task is not to determine whether the verdict is one that I would have returned, but rather whether it was consonant with justice,’’ she said in her decision.

Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr. said yesterday that “we are pleased that the court affirmed what a jury of 12 people found after a lengthy and thorough trial: that John Odgren is guilty for committing the premeditated, deliberate, cruel, and extremely atrocious stabbing murder of an unknown and defenseless classmate in a school bathroom, taking the life of a beloved 15-year-old who had everything to live for.’’

Haggerty’s decision touched upon a delicate issue among youth advocates: the sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without parole, with no chance for rehabilitation. In Massachusetts, anyone 14 years of age or older can be tried for murder as an adult and sentenced to life without parole.

In May, the US Supreme Court decided on a Florida case that it is unconstitutional to send a youth to prison without the possibility of parole. While that ruling did not include homicide cases specifically, youth advocates raised hopes that the court would side with the same principles in a murder case: that youths and their brains are not fully developed, and that they should be offered the chance of rehabilitation.

“We know that children are different, and their brains are different, that children and their brains are still developing,’’ said Naoka Carey, a lawyer with the Youth Advocacy Department and coordinator with the Massachusetts Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. That group is working to create new sentencing laws for juveniles.

Carey said Haggerty’s decision “calls into question our practice of imposing mandatory life imprisonment sentences on juveniles.’’

Shapiro said yesterday that he remains disappointed with the judge’s refusal to change the verdict, but said that her concerns provide hope for a separate request to dismiss the sentence based on constitutional grounds. Haggerty will hear that request.

“The decision is a clear call to change the Draconian laws in the Commonwealth that mandate life without parole for children convicted of homicide,’’ Shapiro said. “Her conclusion that a sentence of imprisonment of life without the possibility of parole is a tragedy for a 16-year-old offender and the circumstances of the defendant provides important support for the movement in the Commonwealth to change the law.’’

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.

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