Mental illness runs in Nathaniel Fujita’s family, and Fujita himself had slipped into a deep depression in the months before his former girlfriend was slain, his aunt testified Thursday as the first witness for the defense.
“Nathaniel was withdrawn and seemed depressed,” said Joyce Saba in Middlesex Superior Court. “There was an extreme change in his behavior.”
Fujita, 20, is accused of beating, strangling and slashing to death 18-year-old Lauren Astley, on July 3, 2011, and dumping her body in a Wayland marsh. He faces first-degree murder and other charges.
Prosecutors say he was humiliated and angry over their breakup; his defense lawyer says his client was suffering a brief psychotic episode.
Prosecutors closed their case on Thursday morning, after two weeks of testimony. The last witness prosecutor Lisa McGovern called was Astley’s mother, Mary Dunne, who spoke about her daughter’s love of her friends, a fight Astley had with Fujita in June and the last time she saw her alive.
Saba testified that until 2011, she would have described Fujita as “sweet, honest, athletic, quiet.” But in the spring and summer of his senior year of high school in 2011, she said, he had stopped going out with friends or being social, and no longer was the confident and happy young man she knew.
Two of Fujita’s great uncles, said Saba, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. One uncle, who Saba said had been a police officer, believed that the CIA was listening to him through the television. Fujita’s younger sister was hospitalized in a child psych unit in 2010, Saba testified.
On the day Astley was killed, Fujita attended a barbecue at the Saba home. Other family members have testified that Fujita seemed normal, and watching TV and playing the keyboard with his cousin, and chatting about football with his uncle.
Saba testified that before that party, she told family members to try to keep Fujita positive.
“I was reminding my husband and my daughters that Nathaniel was going through a difficult time and this was important to keep it upbeat,” she said. “Don’t go into an area asking questions about his breakup. Talk about future things. A little coaching session.”
Fujita did not seem angry when he left the Saba home at around 6 p.m., she testified. Prosecutors say that Fujita killed Astley just after 7 p.m.
On July 4, the day after the killing, Fujita came back to the Saba home with his mother.
“He just seemed flat,” said Saba. “He was quiet.”
Saba testified that they did not have a discussion, but she gave him a hug, they told each other they loved each other, and they read the Bible.
On cross-examination, Saba said that at no point on July 4 did Fujita mention Astley.
When asked, Saba also testified that Fujita’s academic and athletic efforts had dropped off after he received word that he had been accepted to Trinity College. She also said that in earlier testimony to a grand jury, she told McGovern that Fujita did not like to spend time with his family.
She also testified that although Fujita did not do much during the day, he did get to the gym regularly, and hold a landscaping job.