Teen convicted of murder in Rocori shootings
By Pat Condon
ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- A judge convicted 16-year-old John Jason McLaughlin of first-degree murder Monday, ruling that he intended to kill one of his classmates in a 2003 shooting at Rocori High School.
Judge Michael Kirk determined that McLaughlin was trying to kill 14-year-old Seth Bartell, rejecting a defense argument that he intended to wound the boy. McLaughlin, tried as an adult, faces a life sentence.
In the second phase of the trial, which was to begin later today, Kirk was to hear defense arguments that McLaughlin was mentally ill at the time of the shooting, and should be institutionalized instead of sent to prison.
The defense did not contest a second-degree murder charge in the shooting of 17-year-old Aaron Rollins, who was killed by a stray bullet during the shooting on Sept. 24, 2003 at the school in Cold Spring.
McLaughlin was acquitted on a charge of second-degree assault for pointing a gun at a teacher who intervened and took him into custody. The teen was convicted today of bringing a gun to school.
Assistant Attorney General William Klumpp Jr., who tried the case, praised the verdicts.
"Obviously, we wish Seth and Aaron were here, and this wouldn't be necessary, but obviously since they can't be here, we're glad the judge found Jason McLaughlin guilty of first- and second-degree murder in the deaths of Seth Bartell and Aaron Rollins," Klumpp said.
Kirk said today, "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."
Many of the facts of the case were not in question. McLaughlin, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, obtained a .22-caliber pistol from a drawer belonging to his father, a Stearns County sheriff's deputy.
The defense acknowledged that McLaughlin took the gun to school with the intent of harming Bartell. He allegedly shot and wounded the boy in a basement hallway in view of other students.
When Bartell fled, McLaughlin fired another shot that missed him but hit Rollins in the neck. Rollins died a short while later.
Prosecutors say McLaughlin then pursued Bartell up some stairs and into the school's gym, where he shot him in the forehead. He died 16 days later.
The defense pinned much of its case on a videotaped statement that showed McLaughlin stating that his intent was to wound Bartell, not kill him, and acting with surprise when learning that he had killed Rollins, whom he said he'd never heard of.
Prosecutors presented evidence that McLaughlin fired the fatal shot at Bartell from close range -- anywhere from a couple inches to three feet away. They said his preparations also indicated his intent was to kill, and witnesses testified that he had a smirk on his face after the shootings.
The defense opted to have a judge make the ruling, instead of a jury. That's at least in part because of the mental illness defense that attorney Dan Eller planned to present, which has often proved difficult to persuade juries to accept.
Kirk, a Clay County judge, was brought in to hear the case because of McLaughlin's father's job in county law enforcement.