Legal insanity or premeditated murder? Closing arguments wrap in playground murder trial

Posted at 9:56 AM, Sep 03, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-03 09:56:17-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Closing arguments ended Thursday in the trial of the youngest murder suspect in Kent County history. Jamarion Lawhorn was 12 last August when he told police he stabbed Connor Verkerke, 9, to death on a Kentwood playground.

The defense used its time Thursday to make its case that Lawhorn should be declared legally insane.

Lawhorn's mother and stepfather testified about the conditions in the home and Lawhorn's well being.

Connor Verkerke, 9.

Also Thursday, the defense called Dr. Priya Rao, a clinical psychologist, who met with Lawhorn after his arrest. Dr. Rao stated Lawhorn suffered from mental illnesses, including depression, and did not understand that his actions were wrong at the time.

Jamarion Lawhorn

Dr. Rao said enduring abuse from a young age changes the brain, possibly for life, adding that Lawhorn lives in a constant state of fear and has inadequate problem-solving skills.

She described that Lawhorn told her he did not mean to kill Connor Verkerke.

“What he was thinking when he took the knife, what was he planning to do with it, he said he didn’t think of anything much, rather going back, he thought he would hurt himself, but then he realized that would hurt too much,” said Dr. Rao.

“Then the thought came that maybe he should just go ahead and ‘poke’ another kid, so he could be arrested by the police and put on electric chair or get a lethal injection.”

Dr. Rao said the fact that Lawhorn acted according to what he had watched on television, which Lawhorn mentioned in the 911 call to the dispatcher, shows his immaturity and lack of understanding of his actions.

However, Dr. Susan Tremonti, in testimony for the prosecution, said that even though Lawhorn suffers from mental illnesses, he is not legally insane. Dr. Tremonti met with Lawhorn three times and testified that his actions show he understands that what he was doing was wrong. For example, he hid the knife, he walked past kids he knew with the concealed knife and did not stab them, and he called 911 after the stabbing.

“[Lawhorn] tells me he hid the knife specifically so he would not get caught and no one would call the police," said Dr. Tremonti. "To me, that’s understanding the quality and nature of his behavior. He understood the purpose and wrongfulness of his behavior."

Ultimately, testimony for the defense was built on the longstanding history of documented abuse and neglect Lawhorn faced. Dr. Rao said Lawhorn, like many children abused from a young age, is living in a constant state of fear, which has affected his cognitive functioning to the point he did not understand the seriousness of his actions leading up the stabbing.

In closing arguments, the defense said Lawhorn’s abuse is a key factor that leads to legal insanity.

“Frankly we have a situation that’s just a tragedy all around, there isn’t a good, optimistic feeling that’s come from this case: everything has been depressing,” said defence lawyer Charles Boekeloo. “You've only had to experience it for four days. Jamarion Lawhorn has experienced it his whole life."

Both defense and prosecution agreed that Lawhorn suffers from mental illness, including depression and a history of abuse that was never treated with professional treatment. Even Dr. Tremonti said Lawhorn told her at one point that instead of homicide he considered calling Child Protective Services but said “last time they didn't help.”

However, in closing arguments the prosecution reiterated that Lawhorn is not legally insane; rather, this killing was premeditated.

"If you were to put a 30-year-old in his position, you would be thinking, What a cold, calculated, brutal act. It was that, it is that, he is that,” said prosecutor Kevin Bramble. “It was cold and calculating and planned."

Although the defense asked for the conviction of voluntary manslaughter be added to jury instructions, the judge refused to allow it.

Testimony Thursday was delayed a short time after the judge investigated a rumor that a deputy in the court had been asked by a juror about what the penalty for Lawhorn might be if he was found guilty.  The judge determined that it was not a juror in this case, but reminded jurors when they returned that they should not be concerned with the penalty, just the determination of guilt or innocence.

Jury instructions begin Friday morning.