Rocori shooter's case rests on legal test for insanityby Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio
The teenager sentenced to life in prison for killing two students at Rocori High School appealed his murder conviction to the state Supreme Court on Thursday, arguing that the legal test for insanity used at his trial was outdated.
St. Paul, Minn. — In September 2003, Jason McLauglin, 15 at the time, brought a gun to Rocori High School in Cold Spring. His plan was to shoot Seth Bartell because he claimed Bartell was bullying him. McLaughlin shot Bartell and another student, Aaron Rollin. Both boys died.
At trial, McLaughlin's attorney claimed the boy was mentally ill and wasn't responsible for his actions. But last summer a judge rejected that argument, and sentenced McLaughlin to life in prison.
Now a defense attorney for McLaughlin has asked the seven justices on the State Supreme Court to consider whether or not the teen was treated too harshly by the justice system.
Davi Axelson, an assistant state public defender, says since McLaughlin was only 15 when the shooting happened, his actions shouldn't be held to the same standard as an adults.
"The ability to act rationally is a problem with adolescents as opposed to adults, who rely on a different part of their brain that focuses more on common sense and reasoning -- other things associated with adult decisions," Axelson argued.
Axelson also says McLaughlin was suffering from a mental illness, which further clouded his mind. In Minnesota, a mental illness defense falls under the M'Naghton rule. It says in order to be considered mentally ill and not responsible for a crime, a defendant must be completely out of touch with reality.
Axelson says even though McLaughlin was tried as an adult, applying M'Naghton to a juvenile is unconstitutional.
"M'Naghton was created for adults. It doesn't properly evaluate the way juveniles think, and therefore a different test should apply," she said.
Axelson has asked the state Supreme Court to develop a separate way to evaluate juveniles tried as adults in Minnesota, and use that new standard to reconsider McLaughlin's life sentence.
Lawyers with the Minnesota Attorney General's office, who prosecuted McLaughlin, say talk of the M'Naghton defense has little to do with this case.
"Whether the application of M'Naghton to a person who committed murder as a part of an irresistable impulse -- that person is not Jason McLaughlin," argued Assistant Attorney General John Galus.
Galus says McLaughlin probably wouldn't qualify as mentally ill even under a less stringent standard, because he planned to take a gun to school and shoot a fellow student.
"The evidence at trial shows overwhelming evidence of premeditation in carrying out these murders. The murder was planned for a week," said Galus.
Deciding how juveniles tried as adults should be judged is complicated, according to Barry Feld, a law professor at the Univiersity of Minnesota.
"When juveniles are transferred to criminal court for prosecution as adults, the law treats them as adults," Feld said.
Feld says there's been discussion across the country on whether the M'Naghton Rule is too strict in the case of juveniles being tried as adults, but he says the standard is not likely to change, nationally or in Minnesota, anytime soon.
"So the issue of whether or not they're going to develop a separate insanity defense for transferred juveniles is a very long shot," said Feld.
The Minnesota Supreme Court will discuss the use of the M'Naghton defense in the Jason McLaughlin school shooting case. There's no timeline for a decision from the court.
McLaughlin, now 18, is incarcerated at the state prison in St. Cloud.
- All Things Considered, 11/30/2006, 5:50 p.m.