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Rod Matthews during an early court appearance.
Rod Matthews during an early court appearance.Globe photo/File

DEDHAM — Fifteen-year-old Rod Matthews was found guilty of second-degree murder yesterday in the 1986 baseball bat slaying of his high school classmate Shaun Ouillette. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The thin, red-haired Canton resident, who according to a friend killed Ouillette “for the heck of it,” began crying softly after the verdict was delivered by the jury foreman. As he was led out of the courtroom, he glanced once at his parents.

Matthews, who was tried as an adult because of the viciousness of the crime, had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to a charge of first-degree murder.

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The 12-member Norfolk Superior Court jury rendered its verdict after nine hours of deliberations following 35 hours of testimony that began March 2. The jury had been instructed by Judge Roger J. Donahue that it could find Matthews guilty of second-degree murder if it believed he was mentally diminished at the time of the crime.

Matthews’ lawyer, John Philip White Jr., had argued that Matthews acted on an uncontrollable impulse when he murdered Ouillette on Nov. 20, 1986, in a wooded area of Canton. The lawyer added that Matthews’ mental illness was aggravated by his long-term use of the drug Ritalin, which is used to treat hyperactivity.

Matthews, who has been described by White as a “severely mentally diseased young man,” will be eligible for parole in 15 years.

“My thoughts are in disarray,” said Matthews’ father, Kenneth, who disagreed with the jury’s verdict. “Granted, he committed the crime, but this is a sick boy. He should be in a mental hospital. He’s not in his right mind.”

Ouillette’s mother, Jeanne Quinn, said that the verdict was too light. Standing on the courthouse steps after the verdict, she broke into tears. “Oh Shauny. Oh God, Shauny. All I ever wanted was justice. I wanted first-degree murder.”

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A conviction of first-degree murder would have carried a prison sentence without parole.

Matthews was 14 when he lured Ouillette into secluded woods in Canton and beat him over the head with a wooden baseball bat.

During the six days of testimony, witnesses told of how, in the month before Ouillette was killed, Matthews began to act strangely.

Before Halloween, Matthews started to talk with his two close friends, Robert Peterson and Jonathan Cash, about a desire to “kill someone to see what it feels like,” witnesses said.

They also described how Matthews began to light bonfires and, at one time, attempted to light a fire behind the Village Mall in Canton.

Matthews’ mother and sister testified that the boy would light small pieces of paper and watch them burn down to his fingers.

After Matthews had named two other Canton High School classmates as potential victims, Matthews chose Ouillette, who was new to the neighborhood, because he “would not be missed,” according to testimony.

Matthews then tried to befriend Ouillette in the two weeks before the killing. As a ploy to get Ouillette to his house, Matthews promised to sell him bottle rockets, according to testimony.

On Nov. 20, 1986, Ouillette took a school bus with Matthews to his home. After playing a game of pool, Matthews suggested they go out to “the pits,” a wooded area, to build a fort in the new-fallen snow.

Carrying his sister’s baseball bat, Matthews followed Ouillette into the woods and struck him at least three times while Ouillette screamed for help, according to testimony.

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He then returned to Peterson’s house and told his friend about the killing. After participating in a snowball fight, Matthews took Peterson to see Ouillette’s body.

A week later, on the day before Thanksgiving, Matthews and Peterson took Cash to see the body. Afterward, the trio rode their bikes to a nearby pizza parlor and had lunch.

On Dec. 11, three weeks after the killing, police received a handwritten note from Cash that told them where Ouillette’s body could be found and implicated Matthews in the killing.

Donahue sentenced Matthews to state prison after rejecting a motion by White to have the youth returned to the Department of Youth Services.

White said later that he planned to ask Michael V. Fair, commissioner of the Department of Correction, to transfer Matthews to a mental institution. Several psychiatrists testified that Matthews suffers from chronic mental illness.

White said he was concerned about Matthews’ safety in a state prison, but he agreed with Peter Casey, assistant Norfolk County district attorney, that the verdict was a fair one.

“The jury worked long and hard with the question of Matthews’ sanity, and I think that they found that the boy was mentally ill,” White told reporters as he stood on the steps of the domed courthouse.

Members of the jury, which had been sequestered during the trial, were ferried back to the Holiday Inn in Dedham after the verdict. They declined to talk with reporters on instructions from Donahue.

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Shortly before the verdict was announced at 2 p.m., the Matthews and Ouillette families were ushered into the wood-paneled courtroom. Spectators crowded the room and sat in silence as Matthews was led to the table where he had sat almost motionless each day since the trial began.

Wearing a black sweater and gray slacks, Matthews stood as the jury foreman told the court, “He is guilty, sir.”

Matthews’ parents, two sisters and brother sat huddled in the rear of the courtroom. Kenneth Matthews stared straight ahead as the verdict was read, while Matthews’ mother, Janice, buried her face into the shoulder of her other son, Kenneth Jr., and began sobbing.

Quinn, who often left the courtroom in tears as the evidence about the brutal killing unfolded during the trial, was composed as she left the courtroom with her husband, Paul.

Earlier in the day, Quinn said that she is embittered over her son’s death but empathizes with the Matthews family.

“I know Rod was a good boy to them. So was Shaun. But there’s no visiting hours for him,” said Quinn, holding a picture of her son wearing a hockey uniform.

Kenneth and Janice Matthews, who attended the trial every day, said they want their son to receive medical help while imprisoned.

“He was crying for help,” said his father. “If we had known he had written that letter, we would have been able to help him.”

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The father was referring to a letter his son had written to a Canton High School health teacher. The letter said, among other things, that Matthews was thinking about killing someone and that lately he liked to light fires.

The teacher, Frank Tricomi, testified that he did not tell other school authorities about the letter he received from Matthews until after the boy’s arrest.

Mary A. McGeown, a Department of Correction spokeswoman, said that Matthews was taken to Cedar Junction state prison in Walpole for booking and fingerprinting and then was taken to Concord state prison for a 60- to 90-day evaluation.

Matthews will be evaluated for psychological, medical, educational and security needs, she said. A team of correction officials will then recommend a permanent facility for Matthews to serve his sentence, she said.

McGeown said he could be sent to the state’s secure facility at Bridgewater State Hospital if he is determined to be mentally ill and a danger to himself or others.

While at Concord, she said, Matthews will be isolated from the rest of the prison population in a single cell.