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Judge rejects insanity argument from Rocori shooter
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The families of shooting victims Aaron Rollins and Seth Bartell said they're relieved McLaughlin will be in prison for a very long time. But they said the outcome is not that satisfying, because it doesn't bring their boys back. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
A judge has decided Jason McLaughlin was not insane when he shot and killed fellow students Seth Bartell and Aaron Rollins at Rocori High School nearly two years ago. Judge Michael Kirk ruled Tuesday that McLaughlin knew what he was doing was wrong. Since McLaughlin is now criminally responsible for the shooting, he faces life in prison.

St. Cloud, Minn. — Judge Michael Kirk's ruling was swift, coming only one hour after the prosecution and defense finished their closing arguments in the mental illness portion of the trial.

Judge Kirk said after considering all the evidence, he found the teenager had not met Minnesota's strict standard for a mental illness defense, called the M'Naughton rule.

That rule says only severely mentally ill people who don't understand their crime can be excused from responsibility under the law.

That's been the argument from Jason's lawyer, but the judge didn't agree.

He said McLaughlin may have suffered from some kind of mental disorder or impairment such as depression at the time of the shooting, but that's not what caused him to bring a gun to school and kill two students. Kirk cited McLaughlin's own confession in which the teenager said he planned to "shoot some people." After Judge Kirk's ruling, Kim Bartell, the mother of shooting victim Seth Bartell, said she was pleased with the judge's action.

"It's a relief to know that Jason will not be out to do this to anyone's family again, hopefully forever," Bartell said.

Since the judge found McLaughlin guilty of first and second-degree murder last week, he now faces life in prison, with a chance for parole after 30 years.

Tom Rollins, the father of shooting victim Aaron Rollins, said he thought the judge's ruling was fair, but it brought him little relief.

"It really didn't matter what the judge came up with, mental illness or the verdict he had today. It's not going to bring either of the two boys back, and we've basically got a big hole in our lives for the rest of our lives," said Rollins.

The prosecuting attorney in the case, Bill Klumpp, said he hopes the ruling provides some closure for the community of Cold Spring. Klumpp hopes the verdict serves multiple purposes.

"In these school shootings, the one thing we do know about them is these are not impulsive, spur-of-the-moment acts, they are something that the students engage in and think about," said Klumpp. "Hopefully, when they think about that they'll think about the consequences, and, we hope, be be deterred from taking a gun to school and shooting somebody."

Klumpp said he was surprised at how quickly Tuesday's ruling came.

But Daniel Eller, McLaughlin's attorney, said he wasn't surprised at the outcome of the ruling. Eller said it's what he expected, and had warned McLaughlin of that.

"I had pretty much prepared him for that, so there wasn't any surprises," said Eller.

Eller doesn't see the ruling as a total defeat. He said he plans to appeal the outcome of the case. Eller said Minnesota's standards for a mental illness defense are stricter than many other states and the federal government. Because of that, he said the guidelines are unconstitutional.

Eller challenged the issue during the trial. Judge Michael Kirk denied that motion, saying only the Minnesota Legislature could take up the issue.

Final sentencing is scheduled for 17-year-old Jason McLaughlin on Aug. 30. Administrators at Rocori High School asked that the sentencing take place before fall classes begin, so they could start the school year with a clean slate.

Family members of the victims say they'll be in court that day. They'll have the opportunity to speak to the judge, and tell him how the shooting has affected them, before the teenager is sentenced to prison.