Was Nathaniel Fujita experiencing a brief psychotic episode when he killed Lauren Astley?
While that question and the case as a whole is now in the hands of jurors to decide, a local criminologist says no; Fujita is criminally responsible.
The 20-year old Wayland man faces murder and assault charges in the July 3, 2011, death of his ex-girlfriend, Lauren Astley. While the defense does not dispute Fujita strangled and stabbed Astley to death in the garage of his West Plain Street home, Fujita's lawyers say he was having a brief psychotic episode during the killing.
If successful, such an insanity defense could lead to a verdict of not guilty by reason of lack of criminal responsibility. If he is deemed guilty, the jury will decide whether it was first- or second-degree murder.
First-degree murder carries a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole while second-degree murder, according to Fujita's attorney William Sullivan, carries a sentence of life with the possibility of parole in a minimum of 15 years.
Deemed insane, Fujita would be committed to a state mental hospital until a panel of psychiatrists see him as no longer insane. The judge in the case, Peter Lauriat, told jurors Tuesday before giving them the case that a verdict of not guilty by reason of lack of criminal responsibility could carry a commitment of as little as 40 days, or it could be much longer.
Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University, says those who are committed to a state mental hospital usually spend more time incarcerated, they're just doing so in a hospital.
The insanity defense is a tough one to win, however — and a last resort for defense attorneys, says Levin, who is also co-director of Northeastern's Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict.
Only 1 percent of felony defendants attempt the insanity defense, with one-third ultimately being successful, Levin said.
“I would be very surprised if the defendant (Fujita) was found not guilty by reason of insanity,” he said.
While more insanity cases are successful for defendants in Europe, jurors in America don’t like the insanity defense, Levin added.
“It’s part of the values we cherish — taking responsibility for what you do,” he said. “Some see the insanity defense as letting someone off the hook. Someone has to be responsible. If the defendant isn’t, who is?”
Levin said it would be more likely for Fujita to be convicted of second-degree murder than to be found not guilty by reason of insanity.
“Assuming that he will appear to be remorseful, it is possible he might be convicted of second-degree murder,” Levin said. “(Juries) would rather reduce (from first- to second-degree murder) than find not guilty.”
However, in his eyes, Levin says the evidence appears to add up to premeditated murder, done and covered up by someone who knew what actions he was taking.
“In the mind of the jury, planning and coverup indicate rationality,” he said. “You can be depressed and anxious, you can even be delusional, but that’s not insane.”
Fujita’s actions following the murder — driving five miles to dispose of Astley’s body in a marsh, taking her car to the town beach, and cleaning up the garage where the murder occurred — show he understood he committed a criminal act, Levin said.
Covering up the murder, and indicating he didn’t want his family to find out, shows Fujita understood completely that he committed a criminal act, which means he is responsible for his actions and doesn’t qualify for insanity, Levin said.
“When a jury sees the kind of coverup that occurred in this case, they will most likely see a rational actor,” Levin said. “Someone who may have been depressed, someone who lost his temper, but still someone rational enough to do everything possible not to get caught. In a legal sense, this means he knew the wrongfulness of his actions.”
Fujita's defense team has laid out a case that the murder took place while Fujita was having a brief psychotic episode, and that his actions showed disorganized thinking, not a premeditated act of murder.
However, premeditation did occur during the murder, argues Levin. It happened after Fujita stopped strangling Astley with the bungee cords in the garage, went into the kitchen, then returned to the garage with a knife to cut her throat.
“You don’t have to premeditate over days, weeks or months,” Levin said. “You don’t have to premeditate for a long period of time. The method (of killing Astley) in this case is important.”
Levin also called the method of strangulation and stabbing a very personal way to kill someone.
“It was up close and personal,” he said. “Very brutal and bloody. That makes the defendant look bad. It’s hard to get sympathy from a jury when you use two intimate methods to kill a victim.”
Today, Wednesday, March 6, jurors are expected to resume their deliberations at 8:45 a.m. after selecting a foreperson late Tuesday afternoon. Jurors are expected to deliberate for full days — 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. — until a verdict is reached.
For a review of the trial and this case in general, see the Wayland Murder: Nathaniel Fujita Trial archive page.