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Cold Spring school shooting case begins in St. Cloud
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Two granite spires stand at the center of a memorial for the Rocori High School shooting victims. One is 17 feet high, to represent 17-year-old Aaron Rollins. The other 14 foot spire is for 14-year-old Seth Bartell. (MPR file photo)
Jury selection begins in a St. Cloud courtroom for the murder trial of Jason McLaughlin. The teenager accused of shooting and killing two students at Rocori High School in Cold Spring nearly two years ago, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. It's a plea that experts say will be tough to defend, especially in a school shooting trial.

St. Cloud, Minn. — Jason McLaughlin, 16, admits to shooting two schoolmates on Sept. 24, 2003. But this case is more about his mental health at the time of the shootings.

Daniel Eller, McLaughlin's attorney, hopes to show why McLaughlin isn't responsible for what happened. Eller says McLaughlin has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. But family members of the victims say that excuse seems too convenient.

Kim Bartell, whose son died in the shooting, said after the insanity defense was presented last summer, that she thought McLaughlin knew what he was doing.

"He definitely thought this out and planned this and did it," Bartell said. "I think a mentally ill person might act on their feelings instead of a conscious decision like that, so I think it's kind of bogus."

For a kid who was teased to react with fatal violence, deadly violence, you'd have to be crazy.
- Richard Lawrence, St. Cloud State University criminal justice professor

That's a common reaction when people use mental illness as a defense in criminal cases.

Katherine Newman, a sociologist at Princeton University, authored the book, "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings."

She's seen this issue play out in similar trials. The defense claims the accused didn't know what they were doing, which is hard for a lot of people to accept, especially in school shootings.

"Because they are planned, and there are notes, and there are warnings and there are things that kids say to one another," Newman said. "It looks very planned and that makes it hard for ordinary people to suspend their sense that they're quite capable of forming intent."

But Newman says planning a school shooting doesn't automatically mean the accused can be held accountable for the crime.

Richard Lawrence agrees. Lawrence, a St. Cloud State University criminal justice professor and author of the book, "School Violence and Juvenile Justice," believes mental illnesses play a big role in school shootings.

"For a kid who was teased to react with fatal violence, deadly violence, you'd have to be crazy," Lawrence said. "Not a psychology term or a legal term, but that's pretty crazy behavior."

Lawrence says when offenders are acquitted because of mental illness, the public thinks they got off the hook. He doesn't see it that way.

"They may spend more time in a mental institution than they would have spent in prison as a convicted criminal," Lawrence said.

But in reality, Lawrence says, kids who've been involved in school shootings and other violent crimes across the country are often convicted of their crime and sent to an adult prison for decades. That's because an insanity plea is very tough to defend.

Barry Feld, a University of Minnesota law professor, says a successful mental illness defense, according to Minnesota law, comes only if a jury is convinced the accused didn't know right from wrong.

"And that means essentially that he lacks contact with reality, that he doesn't know what he's doing, that he doesn't know the harmful consequences of what he's doing," Feld said. "That's a very difficult defense to mount under the best of circumstances or the worst of circumstances. Especially when there is evidence of planning activity such as bringing a gun to school which clearly shows some reality contact."

Besides the challenge of the insanity defense, Jason McLaughlin faces serious charges and serious prison time if he's found guilty. McLaughlin is charged with first-degree murder, which carries a minimum life sentence and no chance of parole for 30 years. He's also charged with second-degree murder and assault.

Attorneys on both sides of the case get their first chance to question potential jurors Tuesday morning in St. Cloud as the trial begins.