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Teen convicted of murder in Rocori High School shootings
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John McLaughlin was found guilty of first-degree murder Monday in the shooting deaths of two students at Rocori High School in 2003. (Photo courtesy of Stearns County)

St. Cloud, Minn. — (AP) - A 16-year-old boy was convicted Monday of murder in the shooting deaths of two classmates at Rocori High School, settling the first phase of a trial that now turns to whether the boy was sane at the time.

John Jason McLaughlin was convicted by Judge Michael Kirk of bringing a gun to Rocori High School on Sept. 24, 2003, and intentionally murdering freshman Seth Bartell, 14, and killing senior Aaron Rollins, 17, with a stray bullet.

Kirk rejected the defense argument that McLaughlin meant only to injure Bartell, writing "there's nothing about what happened ... that indicates an intent other than to kill."

"Why would you use a gun if your goal is to hurt?" Kirk wrote in papers explaining his verdicts. "A baseball bat, hockey stick or a number of other objects would have accomplished that result."

McLaughlin, who was tried as an adult, showed little reaction to the ruling. He faces a life sentence unless his attorney can persuade Kirk that McLaughlin was mentally ill at the time of the shooting. If so, Kirk could sentence McLaughlin to a mental institution instead of prison.

This has been a long, difficult, sad case for everyone involved. Sitting in this courtroom, it's been difficult not to be emotionally affected by the events of Sept. 24, 2003, at Rocori High School.
- Judge Michael Kirk

"Obviously we wish Seth and Aaron were here, and this wouldn't be necessary, but ... we're glad the judge found Jason McLaughlin guilty," said Assistant Attorney General William Klumpp Jr., who prosecuted the case.

Neither defense attorney Dan Eller nor members of McLaughlin's family had any immediate comment on the verdicts. None of the Bartell or Rollins family members spoke to reporters, either.

The mental illness phase of the trial began shortly after the verdicts were read. The first person to testify on McLaughlin's behalf was Dr. Maureen Hackett, former chief psychiatrist at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter.

Based on several interviews with McLaughlin after the school shootings, Hackett testified that before the shooting the teen was schizophrenic, suffered from delusions of grandeur and heard a voice that urged him to shoot Bartell, who he perceived as a bully.

"He says the voice gave him the idea to shoot Seth, to hurt him, to mark him, to make him stop," she said.

While McLaughlin was in custody, Hackett said, the voice became a hallucination named Jake, a sort of mentor figure in a trench coat that changed colors from white to black to red and had changing hair to match.

She said that McLaughlin was suffering from a major mental illness that "created for him a defect in reasoning so severe that he didn't know that when he went to injure Seth Bartell that he could significantly hurt him."

Minnesota sets a high standard for defendants to show insanity. The prosecution and defense were scheduled to present witnesses on the issue for several days.

Klumpp argued Monday that it was clear McLaughlin wasn't insane when he planned how to get the .22-caliber pistol he took from his father, a Stearns County sheriff's deputy, past school metal detectors and security cameras.

"He understood it was wrong, in the moral sense," Klumpp said, adding, "The state will prove that the defendant knew the nature of his act and knew that it was wrong."

McLaughlin sat at the defense table staring straight ahead during the afternoon testimony. He was in street clothes and was not restrained.

The boy shot and wounded Bartell in a school hallway, then fired another shot as Bartell fled that hit Rollins, authorities said. Prosecutors said McLaughlin then pursued Bartell up some stairs and into the school gym, where he shot him in the forehead at close range. He died 16 days later.

Kirk, a Clay County judge, was brought in to hear the case because of the father's job in county law enforcement.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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