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Decisions on main motions in murder case on hold

Judge sets hearing on one, takes the other under advisement

MORRISON – Answers to two big questions looming over the upcoming Schroeder murder trial – will her confession to police be tossed, and will the defense be allowed to present expert testimony that Zoloft impaired her ability to appreciate the consequences of her actions – are being considered by a judge.

Defense attorney James Mertes and Whiteside County State’s Attorney Terry Costello argued a host of motions Wednesday in advance of the Jan. 16 murder trial of 17-year-old Anna M. Schroeder, who shot her mother, Peggy, in the head on July 6, 2017, shortly after she turned 15.

After receiving audio, video and a written transcript of Schroeder’s July 8, 2017, interview with three investigators, Judge Trish Senneff set a Dec. 10 hearing on Mertes’ motion to suppress, to give her time to review that evidence before entertaining arguments on whether the interview, which includes Schroeder confessing to shooting her mother, should be allowed at trial.

Mertes will argue that the interview was improper because, when asked if she wanted a lawyer, Schroeder’s response was “Mm, I don’t know,” and she wasn’t asked again, and when asked if she wanted to talk with the investigators, she responded “I just want to go home.”

She repeated that request 20 times throughout the interview, at which times the investigators repeatedly told her they wanted to help her.

They violated that law by not getting an answer from her regarding a lawyer or whether she wanted to talk to them, and by leading Schroeder to believe they were trying to help her, rather than interrogate her, the statements she gave, including her confession, “were the result of impermissible trickery and cajolement,” and not voluntarily given. That’s a violation of her right not to incriminate herself, Mertes said in his motion to suppress.

Senneff did hear arguments from both sides Wednesday on Mertes’ plan to assert the affirmative defense of involuntary drugged condition, i.e., that Schroeder was prescribed the antidepressant Zoloft – which, as a minor, essentially she could not refuse to take – and it “deprived her of substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of her conduct or conform her conduct to the requirements of law.”

(An affirmative defense employs facts other than those proffered by the prosecutor that, if proven, defeats or mitigates the legal consequences of a defendant’s crime. While it is the prosecution’s job to prove guilt, in an affirmative defense, it is the defendant’s job to prove the mitigating factors.)

Costello is asking Senneff to require a Frye hearing regarding the Zoloft claims. A Frye hearing is designed to determine if the claims are not “new and novel,” but are well-established and generally accepted in the medical or scientific field, and not based solely on opinion alone. It would be the defense’s obligation to prove the claims meet the standard.

Just because the issue has come up in court before juries in the past does not mean the argument has met the Frye standard, Costello said.

Absent such an analysis, any testimony on the anti-depressant’s purported role should be barred, he said.

A Frye test is not needed, Mertes said, precisely because it has been accepted by the courts, including the state Supreme Court, for more than a decade.

Not only that, but “the FDA Adverse Data Base is replete with not hundreds, but thousands of instances where Zoloft has created this condition,” Mertes said. “It’s a frightening reality of this drug.”

Senneff took their arguments under advisement, which means she will consider them, do some research, and issue a ruling at a later date.

Also Wednesday, both sides agreed that Schroeder could appear at trial without shackles; that potential jurors will be interviewed individually and out of earshot of the rest of the pool, which will help ensure details of the crime that may have been gleaned from previous media reports are not shared during voir dire; that no mention of the potential sentence or its impact on the defendant be allowed by either side or any witness; and that photos and videos of the proceedings will not be allowed to be taken during testimony regarding the defendant’s medical information.

A motion to disallow the presentation to the jury of graphic photos of the crime scene and autopsy also is on hold while both sides determine which photos they plan to present at trial. Senneff will review those photos and hear arguments from the attorneys on whether each picture’s probative value outweighs the prejudice it may engender toward the defendant, and will rule based on those arguments.

Schroeder was 3 days past her 15th birthday when she shot her mother, Peggy Schroeder, 53, in the head in their Morrison home. She and her girlfriend at the time, Rachel Helm, 17, of Rock Falls, also are accused of trying to conceal the crime by setting the house on fire.

Schroeder is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, for which she could be sentenced to 20 to 60 years in prison, without parole or any good-time reduction, plus, at the judge’s discretion, 25 years more for using a gun.

She faces 3 to 7 years for her role in setting sheets, including the one that shrouded her mother’s body, on fire, an arson, and 2 to 5 years for trying to conceal a homicidal death.

The trial is estimated to take 2 weeks.

Helm, 17, has a pretrial hearing Dec. 18; her jury trial as set for Jan 12. She is being represented by Dixon attorney Paul Whitcombe.

She is charged with concealment of homicidal death and arson, which carry sentences of 2 to 5 and 3 to 7 years

Because of their age, both girls are being held at the Mary Davis Home, a juvenile detention facility in Galesburg.

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