WOBURN — Nobody says he did not kill her: The question before jurors is whether Nathaniel Fujita was sane when he beat, strangled, and slashed to death his former high school sweetheart, 18-year-old Lauren Astley, on July 3, 2011.
After nearly three weeks of testimony, the jury began deliberations in Middlesex Superior Court late Tuesday afternoon, following closing arguments delivered to a packed courtroom.
Fujita’s lawyer says his client was depressed and psychotic when he killed Astley; prosecutors say he was enraged.
“I understand that this is a difficult case for all of you, because of the senselessness of this, the enormity of the tragedy. And because of that, every fiber of you, of your being, probably says somebody must be convicted for this. For what happened to Lauren Astley. Somebody must pay,” defense attorney William Sullivan, who argued first, told the jury.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, you swore an oath . . . that you would not let those feelings get in the way.”
The only correct verdict, Sullivan said, is to find Fujita, now 20, not criminally responsible because of mental illness.
Prosecutor Lisa McGovern said Fujita’s actions that night were those of a man acting deliberately, with premeditation and extreme cruelty.
“He was as sane in the early evening hours of Sunday, July 3, 2011, when he killed Lauren Astley, as he was at just about the same time of the evening the night before killing Lauren Astley, on Saturday, July 2, when he was eating ice cream in Mashpee,” said McGovern.
At one point, McGovern dropped to her knees, the bungee cord allegedly used to strangle Astley wrapped around her own throat, and asked the jury to consider the scratches on Astley’s knees and the cuts on her neck.
“Consider Dr. [Henry] Nields’s testimony,” she told the jury, referring to the medical examiner who pointed out each of Astley’s individual wounds. As she spoke, she touched her own neck. “His words: ‘And here, and here, and here, and here, and here.’ . . . Was she struggling to survive?”
Before jurors began deliberating, Judge Peter Lauriat told them they could consider several verdicts. Fujita is charged with first-degree murder, which carries a sentence of life in prison without parole.
However, if jurors do not believe he acted with premeditation or with extreme atrocity or cruelty, they could find him guilty of second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years.
Jurors could also find Fujita not guilty because of a lack of criminal responsibility. In that event, said Lauriat, the court could order him hospitalized at a mental health facility for 40 days for observation. The district attorney or other authorities could petition to have him committed to a mental health facility.
If the court concludes that Fujita is mentally ill, he could be committed for six months; every subsequent 12 months, said Lauriat, the commitment order would be reviewed.
Or, the judge said, Fujita could simply be found not guilty. In addition to first-
degree murder, he is charged with two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and one count of assault and battery.
Fujita appeared calm as he watched closing arguments; McGovern turned and pointed at him often as she described the crime and his culpability; he appeared to meet her gaze.
The courtroom was so full of spectators that another courtroom had to be opened to accommodate the overflow.
Sullivan told jurors to remember testimony about Fujita’s depression in the weeks leading up to the killing. He was diagnosed with symptoms of a major depressive episode on June 15; he had withdrawn from his family and friends; he was having trouble sleeping; and he was smoking marijuana every day, his lawyer said.
And he was prone to explosive outbursts, said Sullivan, because of years of football injuries that left him with chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Fujita was not stalking Astley, he said. in fact, Fujita was not even returning her text messages. On the day of the killing, he showed no signs of rage.
“The Commonwealth says this is a well-planned-out case,” said Sullivan. “That is absurd. That is absurd.”
But McGovern said Fujita’s crime showed foresight and cover-up.
Fujita changed and hid his clothes, got rid of his weapons, dumped Astley’s car at the town beach and her body in a marsh more than 5 miles away, said McGovern. Police never found the knife he used.
Hours after the slaying, she said, he searched on his computer, seeking to know whether water erases fingerprints, and he joined a Facebook page dedicated to finding Astley.
Before and after the crime, she said, his family said he was acting normally.
“There is no psychosis fairy who magically sprinkles a dose of psychosis on this defendant,” she said.
“It’s not a mystery,’’ said McGovern. “And the evidence now before you powerfully demonstrates the only person responsible for this crime is seated right here.”
She pointed at Fujita and said, “The time for blaming football, the time for blaming marijuana, the time for blaming the victim is over.”