Darren Odell had just about finished Easter dinner when he killed his father. There had been ham, of course, and potatoes, and some kind of salad with whipped cream in it, he later told detectives.
Just before 6:00 p.m., while his relatives were eating dessert, Odell left the dining room to get the gun he had hidden in his pickup, and more ice for his Pepsi. "I like Pepsi with ice just because it's watered down a little bit," he explained afterward. "I watch my health and that now. I usually don't drink a can of pop straight."
It was Sunday, April 23, 2000, and Darren had been thinking about killing his father for more than two years. Several times he'd brought the gun to family gatherings at his great-aunt's house in Blaine. But the time never seemed right. Sometimes there were too many people in the way who might get injured; sometimes his three-year-old niece was present, and he didn't want to upset her.
Dennis Odell had arrived at the Easter gathering with a card for Darren signed "Love, Dad." Darren later said he knew his father was trying hard to do something nice, but he didn't believe the words on the card. "His eyes were kind of teary," Darren commented later. "He knew he wasn't handling it right, not making things better."
After he got his gun, Darren retrieved a few cubes of ice from his aunt's freezer and poured the rest of his Pepsi into his glass, which was resting on the kitchen table. Instead of picking up the drink, though, he walked to the dining room and fired four shots into his father's chest.
Darren walked back into the kitchen, turned and looked at the people still seated at the dinner table, and left the house. He drove away, but ended up just circling the block. When the police came, he lay down in the driveway, told the officers where to find his gun, and suggested they take the spare magazine of ammunition out of his back pocket.
He was equally cooperative at the police station, although he seemed to think that the interrogation was a formality. "It feels like a ton of bricks off me," he explained to the detectives. "I can go back out there now and just leave, live a normal life again, without having to deal with my dad and all. Do you think I'll have to go to trial for this? I just would like to go home and really not deal with anything anymore. Just start over."
Odell did not get to go home that day. It quickly became clear that he was so severely mentally ill he couldn't even stand trial. He was sent to a state psychiatric hospital, where he was kept on heavy medication for the next two and a half years. At first, the doctors who evaluated his mental health were convinced that he knew right from wrong and should eventually be tried.
But while Odell was becoming sane enough for his day in court, his attorneys made some startling discoveries about the investigation of his case. First, they learned that the detective in charge had decided not to look at a stash of notes and letters describing the delusional world Odell lived in, where he was related to Jesus and romantically involved with Reba McEntire. Later, the officer would admit that he had destroyed a collection of bags of semen found in Odell's freezer.
The whole sorry saga, legal scholars and psychiatrists say, illustrates the flaws of the insanity defense. As Odell flitted in and out of sanity, and as the new evidence regarding the strength of his delusions was uncovered, a small army of psychiatrists and psychologists examined and re-examined him. In the end, all would agree that Odell suffered from chronic paranoid schizophrenia and that he killed his father because he believed the two were locked in a contest for survival. But they wouldn't be able to agree whether Odell was legally insane.
By law, virtually everyone found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity in the United States is immediately committed to a psychiatric hospital--often for the rest of his or her life. And yet somehow the popular perception is that they get away with murder. And while that--erroneous though it may be--doesn't strike most people as fair, we also seem to have a problem saying that the seriously mentally ill are always just as responsible for their actions as everyone else. We'd prefer to be able to assign degrees of guilt.
Partly as a result of this ambivalence, in most parts of the country anyone mounting an insanity defense is likely to be judged by a 200-year-old notion of culpability that has nothing to do with modern understanding of mental illness.
In 1843, disembodied voices commanded a Scottish laborer named Daniel M'Naghten to kill Queen Victoria's prime minister, Sir Robert Peel. M'Naghten believed Peel was the devil and the leader of a plot to destroy the world. M'Naghten was a poor stalker, however. He ended up gunning down the prime minister's private secretary by mistake.
At trial, four of England's most distinguished barristers managed to convince the jury to use a "right and wrong test": If at the time of the shooting M'Naghten was unable to tell right from wrong, he could not be found guilty. Swayed, the jury acquitted. Queen Victoria was outraged, as were her subjects.
But the legal argument, the so-called M'Naghten Test, survived, and quickly crossed the Atlantic to America, where it's been causing problems ever since. Right and wrong, as M'Naghten's chief defender, Sir Alexander Cockburn, astutely deduced, are slippery concepts. As a result, U.S. courts have continually struggled to refine the standard.
To meet the standard in some states, a defendant must be unaware his actions were morally wrong. In others, he is guilty if he knew his actions were legally wrong. The problem, of course, is that these legal tests have never squared with the way in which the medical community diagnoses and categorizes mental illness.
As a consequence, in the 1970s, many states changed their laws to better reflect the prevailing psychiatric thought. Some jurisdictions decided defendants could be found not guilty if they were unable to control their actions--even if they knew they were wrong. Others adopted the Model Penal Code test, which says that a defendant was guilty if he had the "substantial capacity" to grasp the wrongfulness of his acts and to control his behavior. The looser rules made it easier for attorneys and mental health professionals to provide a more complete picture of a defendant's state of mind.
"Under the Model Penal Code someone could say, 'I know society is going to see this as wrong, but because of my beliefs I have to do it,'" explains Richard Frase, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School.
Of course, the rules also made it easier for people to get away with murder--technically speaking, anyhow. And naturally, a host of high-profile crimes were quickly followed by trials boasting headline-grabbing defenses. In 1978, a former San Francisco supervisor, Dan White, argued that he was high on Twinkies and other junk food when he killed both the city's mayor, George Moscone, and another supervisor, Harvey Milk. White was found guilty of two counts of manslaughter instead of murder and served just five years in prison. (He killed himself shortly after his release.)
More famously, in 1982 John Hinckley was acquitted by reason of insanity of trying to kill President Reagan and wounding three other people in the process. Hinckley was immediately committed to a mental hospital (where he remains today), but state lawmakers across the country reacted by returning to the Victorian M'Naghten standard.
Minnesota, though, never stopped using M'Naghten. Here, a defendant is sane if he knows moral right from wrong. If that sounds simpler than the legal seesawing the rest of the country engaged in, it's anything but.
Darren Odell may well have known that his actions would be seen as wrong. On one hand, he took a number of steps to make sure that no one else would be hurt during the shooting, and that his niece wouldn't have to see the killing. He even bought a silencer to spare everyone's ears. He practiced regularly at a target range. After he shot his father, he waited for the police.
But he seems to have thought he had no choice but to kill his father. He interpreted everything his father did--even the Easter card signed, "Love, Dad"--as mocking at best, and ultimately as an attempt to drive him to suicide. After the killing, he thought he could just go home to Reba and his freezer full of semen.
In January 1995, Darren Odell broke up with his girlfriend of five years, having concluded that she was a lazy, obnoxious drunk. At first, he was happier.
But a few weeks later, Dennis Odell realized that his son was seeing things and thought people were following him. Father persuaded son to get help, and one day the two drove to downtown Minneapolis to see a psychiatrist. Afterward, Dennis dropped Darren off at his house, a rambler in Coon Rapids. Alone, Odell "got liquored up," went into his closed garage, started his car, and tried to kill himself by carbon monoxide poisoning. He was stopped by his father who, worried, had turned the car around and driven back to Darren's house.
Suicide attempt aborted, Dennis drove Darren to Mercy Hospital, where, according to court documents, Dennis "confirmed the patient's increasing paranoid fears over the past two weeks, distrust of work associates, and the belief that the police planned to arrest him," possibly to try to link him to the Oklahoma City bombing. "[Darren] has been increasingly wary and suspicious, peering out from the curtains of his house." Doctors concluded he had schizophreniform disorder, meaning he was probably schizophrenic, but they lacked enough medical history to be sure. He was given Haldol and Ativan, anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety medications.
Doctors held Darren at Mercy for three days, the maximum time allowed. They released him with instructions to follow up with a psychiatrist and with more medication, which he quickly stopped taking. He went back to work at Mammoth Inc. in Chaska, where he pulled parts in the warehouse.
In Darren's mind, however, the episode hadn't ended. Instead it festered. He began to confabulate memories of being assaulted by his father. "I was goin' through kind of a hard time, ya know," he would later try to explain to police. "I thought there was people followin' me here and there, too. My dad said it was all in my head and that. But he was never really supportive of, of me, you know, trying to--he'd never ask me, um, 'So, you got any new girlfriends?' or anything.
"I just about committed suicide one time because he got too pushy and then he, he actually came back to my place and I had just left the door open 'cause I was gonna asphyxiate myself and he, ah, ah, took me down and put me in [Mercy].
"They gave me a bunch of medication up there and that. And it just made me drowsy," he said. "I went through quite an ordeal there. He put me through that."
Up until then, records suggest he had seen his father as his savior. When he was three, he and his sister were put in a foster home. "Growing up, well, my ma, she'd beat my head against the bathtub," he recalled. "There would be reports if you go way back. There was blood all over. And my ma threw me outside when I was in the nude." (His parents had split up.)
When Darren was eight or nine, Dennis Odell won custody of his kids. In Darren's accounts, his father was loving but things were still hard. "He never bought us any school clothes or anything," he said. "He buys used stuff, you know, and hemmed and fixed up and that. But, I mean, he was always pretty good with us kids and that growing up. We never had a lot of food in the house, either. But he'd pick up, go to the grocery store just about every day to pick up something to eat."
Dennis Odell never stopped worrying about Darren. After thwarting his son's suicide attempt, Dennis periodically stopped by Darren's house to leave lumber or other building materials, or knock on the door and volunteer to work on home maintenance projects. But Darren stopped seeing his father's presence as one of loving concern. He began to think his father had tapped his phone, and "wanted to run my life."
In May 1998 Darren bought a gun, a 9mm Beretta, and took up target practice. From the start, he said, he was concerned about causing injury to anyone but his father. He used earplugs and bought a silencer. He would head right home after visiting the shooting range so that there would be no chance the weapon might be stolen and used.
Several times over the years he loaded the gun and took it to his aunt's house for family get-togethers. But there were always too many people milling around, he later said, too many children he didn't want to see the shooting.
That Easter, when Darren realized he had a clear shot at Dennis from his aunt's kitchen doorway and the kids were outside, he paced back and forth in the kitchen trying to decide whether the moment had really arrived. Eventually, he concluded that it had. He aimed carefully because he wanted his father to die as quickly as possible.
"I hit him point-blank, in the heart I believe," Darren Odell told police. "I know it was a painful death, but I thought it could have been more painful if he was hit in the head or if he suffered a long time.
"It's difficult for me to talk about, 'cause I love my dad so, so much when I was growin' up and that," he continued. "Inside I feel terrible. But I suffered enough emotionally and physically and I sure wasn't gonna have my dad put me back down into, you know, into a place or mental institution or something again for anything."
Odell was to find himself back in a psychiatric ward within a couple of weeks, however. Separate experts had been retained by the prosecution, defense, and court. Each concluded that Odell was incapable of participating in his defense, and he was committed to the Minnesota Security Hospital at St. Peter, where doctors had the court's permission to treat him with neuroleptic medication against his will.
The experts also concluded that Odell knew that shooting his father was wrong, and that he did not meet the legal definition of insanity. For a little while it looked like an open-and-shut case.
In May 2001, Odell's sister was cleaning out his house in preparation for selling it. She came across a large popcorn tin filled with Post-It notes and letters covered with the scrawls of a crazy man. There were love letters to Reba McEntire, and diagrams showing how Odell was related to Jesus and Elvis. There was numerology.
She contacted the Anoka County sheriff's deputy who headed the investigation into her father's killing, Detective Tony Helgeson. He told her that anything that wasn't about the victim was not relevant. She wasn't so sure, however, and she kept calling around. Eventually, she took the popcorn tin to Odell's attorney, Rex Tucker. Even though the question of whether the writings showed Odell to be more deluded remained academic because his client was still not competent for trial, Tucker called the Anoka County Attorney's Office.
A year later, Tucker and his co-counsel, Bryan Leary, caught wind of a courthouse rumor that the popcorn tin wasn't the only evidence Helgeson overlooked. A few calls later, Tucker confirmed that when Odell's house was searched, Helgeson found 15 condoms filled with semen in the freezer. Instead of logging them as evidence, the detective threw the condoms away. Again, he called Sean Gibbs, the county attorney prosecuting Odell. Gibbs obtained a statement from the detective:
"The condoms had a fullness that if it was sperm would have been by its quantity multiple deposits due to its volume," Helgeson wrote in response to the prosecutor's questions. "I felt that knowing the family would be cleaning out the contents of the kitchen it would be upsetting to the next of kin and threw the item in the trash."
Tucker didn't buy that reasoning. The detectives had left a "wheelbarrow load" of hardcore porn in Odell's house for the family to contend with.
Tucker asked the psychologist he had retained on Odell's behalf, James Gilbertson, to take a look at the new evidence and to re-examine Odell. By then Odell had been taking medication for quite some time and, according to Gilbertson's report, was much more articulate.
"I did not obtain from Mr. Odell a more rational and coherent description of his thinking and motivation surrounding his father's death," the psychologist wrote. "When confronted with the bizarre nature of his Post-It notes and his other written productions, Mr. Odell simply noted that he was interested in country western music and that he was struck by the similarity between certain events, i.e., the fact that 29 years separated his birth from that of a relative and that 29 also represented the number of people who died in the Edmund Fitzgerald tragedy on Lake Superior. He was not any the better able to link up why he was so interested in such events or why they seem to gain and sustain his focus."
The new information changed Gilbertson's opinion regarding Odell's legal sanity. Inside his home, the psychologist concluded, Odell lived in a parallel universe. "Contacts by his father had the effect of interrupting defendant's delusional retreat or 'jerking' defendant from his delusional 'cocoon' and forcing him to come face-to-face with the bleakness of his real world and all the attendant emotions of 'despair, unworthiness, and suicidal ideation,'" he wrote. "While he clearly knew what he was doing, was purposeful in his actions, and demonstrated a significant degree of planning and tactical strategy to kill his father, it is my opinion that the driving force was a delusional 'self-defense' based upon the dynamics I have described."
The court-appointed psychiatrist, Dallas Erdmann, also re-examined Odell. Odell knew killing his father was against the law, he opined, but "it is my opinion, with a reasonable medical certainty, that Mr. Darren Odell, while suffering from a severe mental illness (chronic paranoid schizophrenia) at the time of the commission charged, was laboring under such a defect of reason as to not know the 'moral' wrongfulness of shooting his father."
The prosecution's expert, Michael Farnsworth, also issued one more opinion. He, too, changed his diagnosis to chronic paranoid schizophrenia but still maintained that Odell knew killing his father was wrong: "At the time of the instant offense, Mr. Odell understood the nature and wrongfulness of the act and he elected to engage in the shooting death of his father regardless of the consequences."
Unlike most local criminal defenders, Joe Friedberg has won a couple of cases using the insanity defense, but is still convinced that it's "a defense of last resort." Faced with a severely mentally ill client, he often uses psychiatric evidence to push for a plea agreement. "I've tried to negotiate down and then to call the psychiatrist to testify to diminished capacity to get the judge to sentence my client to less time," he says.
The M'Naghten standard is just one of a number of hurdles Minnesota imposes on those hoping to argue mental illness. Unlike other criminal defendants, they have their guilt considered in a two-part trial. During the first phase, the basic facts of the case are established. During the second, the defendant's culpability--his or her ability to distinguish right from wrong--is assessed.
When Odell finally went to court last October, it didn't take long to establish the basic facts of the state's case; there was no question that he fired the shots that killed his father. The drama occurred during the second phase of his trial, when the three mental health experts who had repeatedly interviewed Odell gave conflicting opinions.
This two-step process is called a bifurcated trial, and it is the most controversial part of Minnesota's uniquely stringent laws regarding the criminally insane. In all other homicide cases, a defendant's state of mind is very much at issue. Premeditated murder is judged much more harshly than a killing that occurred as a result of negligence, say, or an unplanned bar fight that got out of hand.
In a trial such as Odell's, however, no testimony about a defendant's state of mind is allowed until the second phase. In essence, a defendant has to concede his guilt up front if he hopes to prove he was too mentally ill to know right from wrong.
"You can't argue in the first part of the trial that your client didn't do it because the jury knows there's going to be a second phase," explains criminal defender Joe Friedberg. "If you think about it, what has happened is that it has done away with the jury's ability to make a compromise."
Without the requirement for bifurcated trials, he continues, a jury could listen to all of the evidence in a given case and conclude that the defendant is guilty of manslaughter but not first-degree murder, for instance. Faced with someone whose delusions had driven them to commit a crime, he says, "the jury would say, 'This person is not guilty like most people are guilty.'"
Just as problematic, the law does not allow judges to instruct juries about the penalties defendants would face if various verdicts were returned. So juries in cases where the insanity defense is raised have a tendency to assume that a not-guilty vote will put a dangerous person right back on the street. Studies show that when juries believe the alternative to conviction is to free someone entirely, they tend to convict them of whatever crime they are charged with.
Faced with this jury juggernaut, Odell's attorneys opted to waive his right to a jury trial and try his case in front of Anoka County District Court Judge Ellen Maas. It's quite possible that the timing couldn't have been worse: Twin Cities headlines were brimming with insanity defense cases. In Minneapolis, Latrice Jones had just been found insane and committed to a state hospital. Convinced that her eight-year-old son was Satan, she had eviscerated him.
In a courtroom just down the hall from Maas's, Larry Dame had just failed to convince a jury that voices told him to kill his sister and brother-in-law and their three kids while they slept in their Lino Lakes home. Earlier that day, Dame's sister and probation officer had tried fruitlessly to get Mercy Hospital to admit him for a psychological evaluation.
And the weekend before Maas was to make her ruling in Odell's case, a woman named Barbara Nash was pleading her case before local TV news cameras. Nash's brother had been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1978 stabbing of their mother. Bruce Wollen had killed her while on a pass from a state hospital. While Odell's case was being heard, the Minnesota Supreme Court was considering whether Nash had the right to be heard by a panel considering her brother's application for a pass to leave hospital grounds.
On November 18, Maas concluded that Odell did not meet the M'Naghten standard and convicted him of first-degree murder. In announcing her decision, Maas took pains to chastise Detective Helgeson, who, she said, "clearly violated acceptable police procedure.
"The doctors have testified that the chance to review the Post-Its and their second and third chance to interview you has provided them with better insight into the severity of your mental illness," she said to Odell. "The doctors have indicated that they are now in a position to better appreciate the depth of your psychoses. In fact, two doctors have changed their opinions." Still, she ruled, she did not believe Odell did not know that shooting his father was morally wrong, and therefore he was guilty of first-degree murder. Unless the appeal currently underway in his case succeeds, Odell is slated to spend the next 25 years in prison.
In the end, what does it matter where Darren Odell does his time, so long as he is locked away from people who might unwittingly trespass on his delusions? One answer is that people committed to psychiatric hospitals aren't released until their doctors say they aren't dangerous; often that means the rest of their lives. Criminals, by comparison, are simply released when they've served their time. And while imprisoned, they may or may not receive any mental health care. Oddly enough, as a convicted felon he might well be free more quickly than if he had been found not guilty and committed to St. Peter.
Moreover, even the sternest law-and-order critics have begun to complain that prisons are becoming warehouses for the mentally ill. Following de-institutionalization, the 1970s push to empty the nation's draconian mental hospitals, the number of mentally ill prison inmates has mushroomed to some 280,000--half as many people as were committed to psychiatric facilities in the 1950s. A 1999 U.S. Justice Department study found four times as many mentally ill people were in prison than were hospitalized.
An untreated mental illness is often the reason someone ends up committing a crime in the first place. And although Minnesota's prisons are still relatively humane, they are not set up to treat inmates' underlying psychological problems.
"Statistics show that the prisons are the largest mental health institutions in whatever state they're in," says Jennifer Bard, a professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. "If you think of the person as sick, like having tuberculosis, it makes no sense to punish them even if it's necessary to quarantine them."
And for all their ambivalence about the legal definition of insanity, Americans still want to distinguish between willful criminal actions and the horrific consequences of mental illness. It is, Friedberg insists, a matter of simple justice. "People who are mentally ill should be in a hospital and guilty people should be in prison," he says. "If we stop recognizing severe mental illness, we've gone back to the Renaissance."
Consider Andrea Yates, the Texas woman last year convicted of drowning her five children even though she had a well-documented history of schizophrenia and was in the midst of postpartum psychosis. The Houston jury that convicted her had no idea that finding her insane would have resulted in her commitment to a mental hospital. It took them three hours to find her guilty of first-degree murder and just 40 minutes to decide to spare her the death penalty.
"If she had gotten the death penalty, that would have been very controversial," says Bard. "Just like we wouldn't have executed a four-year-old who killed another kid. It's on a continuum."
Some legal scholars are convinced that, given information on what would befall her if she were found not guilty, the jury might have concluded she was insane. Almost certainly she would have been convicted of a lesser crime, such as manslaughter. In the wake of her case, there is a push in Texas to make it legal to tell juries that someone found not guilty by reason of insanity will be committed to a psychiatric facility.
It may be hard to imagine a jury would ever have as much sympathy for Darren Odell as for Andrea Yates. But that's precisely why it's so important that the law better reflect modern psychiatric knowledge, according to Odell's legal team.
"There is no doubt that Darren Odell's actions were a direct result of his mental illness, paranoid schizophrenia," Odell's attorneys, Tucker, Sarah Bocaner, and Bryan Leary, explained in a written response to questions from City Pages. "He was predisposed by nature, by genetic misfortune, to develop this terrible illness as a young adult. He was untreated for years before he was compelled by his illness to act, not as a free agent choosing to do evil but as a severely ill man following the dictates of his delusional thinking. He acted on a false belief, that his father was driving him to suicide. That is why this case is important. Because the law in its present state does not take into account the fundamental fact that the mentally ill are not as culpable as those who are free to choose an alternative path.
"The law does not look beyond the effect or the result, and consider causation. The law applies a 19th-century solution to confront contemporary issues of mental illness. Medical science has long since abandoned the use of leeches as a form of treatment for physical illness. Modern psychiatric science has also abandoned outdated treatments, and so too must the law abandon this antiquated 'test' to measure culpability.
"The cold irony is that Darren Odell took the life of the one person who cared the most about him and his well-being. Darren Odell's father loved him, cared for him, agonized over the effects of his mental illness and did everything a devoted father could do. It was his father's care and concern that catapulted the mental illness to the point it became the tragedy it is. If that is not proof of severe mental illness and its effect, what is?"
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