Blaming football in Lauren Astley’s killing

WOBURN, Mass. — Nathaniel Fujita was found guilty of first-degree murder on Thursday, rejecting his insanity plea, and the argument of his defense attorneys that the knocks he took on the high school football field had primed him to commit the acts referred to here in Middlesex Superior Court as “the incident.”


Lawyers for Nathaniel Fujita  argue that he killed his 18-year-old ex-girlfriend, Lauren Astley, during a psychotic break following a series of head injuries on the football field. (CBS News)

“What incident?” asked Alison Fife, the psychiatrist on the witness stand, who had testified for the prosecution.

“You know the incident we’re here for,” snapped the defense attorney, William Sullivan, during one of the nastiest cross-examinations I’ve ever seen.

Of course we knew: We were here for the Commonwealth v. Fujita, following the 2011 beating, strangling, throat-slitting, car-hiding and body-dumping of 18-year-old Lauren Astley, who went to her ex-boyfriend’s house on the evening of July 3 the summer before last and was never seen alive again.

What jurors deliberated for two days before reaching a verdict was whether Fujita killed her in a rage, as prosecutor Lisa McGovern argued in her closing, dramatically dropping to her knees with the bungee cord police believe he used to strangle Astley wrapped around her neck:  “And here and here and here and here and here,” Astley was slashed, McGovern said, pointing to her own throat. “Was she struggling to survive?”

“There is no psychoses fairy who magically sprinkles a dose of psychosis on this defendant,” McGovern said. Pointing at Fujita, she said he was fully responsible: “The time for blaming football, the time for blaming marijuana, the time for blaming the victim is over.”

Sullivan and a psychiatrist who testified for the defense argued that knocks on the football field from the time Fujita was 11 had caused chronic traumatic encephalopathy — which can only be definitively diagnosed in an autopsy — and left him prone to explosive episodes. Then, after Astley broke up with him that summer, he became depressed, smoked pot every day to “numb himself,” and on the day he killed her, experienced a “brief psychotic episode.”

Fife, the psychiatrist who testified for the prosecution, said that when she met with the defendant, he kept changing his story about his symptoms in ways that convinced her he was exaggerating them.

Alas for Fujita, there was no record of even one concussion, and before the killing, he’d seen a psychiatrist just twice: Once several years ago when he was diagnosed with an adjustment disorder, and once a few weeks before Astley’s death, when the doctor wrote in his notes that Fujita was depressed.

Evan Allen, who’s been covering the case for the Boston Globe, said the defendant cried his eyes out when Astley’s mother testified: “It was all quiet in the courtroom,” as she stepped down, “and all you could hear was him sobbing.” Yet all my sympathy is for the victim and her family.

My opinion of athletes has not been enhanced in recent years by the actions of the Notre Dame football player Lizzy Seeberg accused, or of George Huguely, the University of Virginia lacrosse player convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Yeardley Love. Of Clayton Whittemore, the former high school hockey star charged with the murder of his 18-year-old girlfriend, Alexandra Kogut. Of Jovan Belcher, the Kansas City Chiefs player who killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and then himself. Of Oscar Pistorius, the track star with prosthetic legs who’s been charged with murder in the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Why do these horrors keeping happening?

When the documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald sent out a mass e-mail the other day asking, in light of Florida Atlantic University’s plan “to let the GEO Group, a notorious private prison company, slap its name on a new football stadium,” whether we’d soon see players in orange jumpsuits, I only half-kiddingly wrote back, “Sounds about right, actually …”

Obviously, not all, most, or even many players are thugs; two of my sweet young cousins play football. The guy I dated my senior year in high school did, too, and the worst thing he ever did to me was speak in rock lyrics — though come to think of it, and I haven’t in years, he did shout upsetting names at me at our commencement exercises, because I’d been seeing someone else, and threw a beer on me at a party that night. (First thought: Oh, just like on Bravo. But then: It’s not funny, really, and not the counter-example I’d intended, either.)

The only hint of violence from Fujita before Astley’s death seemed to have come at a graduation party where he made her cry, angrily took a whack at one of the poles holding up a party tent, and was asked to leave.

Based on the testimony, I would have been shocked if he had been found not criminally responsible because of mental illness. But what I want to know and don’t is where the line between illness and evil or volition and compulsion really is. Am I wrong to be more willing to assume that a man who opened fire on those first-graders in Newtown was criminally insane than I am to believe that of Fujita?

I don’t buy that he didn’t know what he was doing when he told Astley to park out of sight, later changed and hid his blood-soaked clothes, dumped Astley’s car at the beach and her body in a marsh, did an Internet search of whether water erases fingerprints, or signed onto a Facebook page of friends concerned about her after she went missing. And doesn’t the fact that he himself said he panicked at the thought that his mother would find out what he’d done and have a heart attack mean that his conscience was still operating on some level?

Yet the prosecutor’s withering remark about the “psychoses fairy” isn’t quite right, either; mental illness isn’t imaginary, even if we’re still confused and often misinformed about how psychotic breaks happen, and how long they can last. In the mass shooting in the Aurora, Colo., movie theatre, a major issue is whether the accused could have “snapped,” when he spent so much time planning the melee; how long does “snapping” take, anyway?

Longer than we think, apparently, and as the descent into that state is usually more of a slide than a “snap,” we ought to stop using that word. Yes, even if it is a football term.

Melinda Henneberger
Melinda Henneberger is a Post politics writer and anchors ‘She the People.’ Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

 

 

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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