District Judge Richard Meadows said Shuvender Sem, 25, is not guilty by reason of insanity for the fatal stabbing and an earlier unprovoked attack on another student.
Sem “was suffering from a serious psychiatric illness, which will require continuing treatment and medication in hope of controlling that illness,” Meadows’ ruling said.
Levi Butler, 19, was stabbed in the chest with a paring knife in the school’s community dining room March 1, 2004, as horrified students looked on.
Sem, a diagnosed schizophrenic, had earlier stabbed student John Killian on the right side of his face with a pen.
The ruling means that Sem, who is from Pennsylvania, will undergo indefinite psychiatric treatment under state care rather than go to prison. He faced a mandatory life prison term for first-degree murder and assault with intent to inflict serious injury.
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Meadows ordered Sem taken to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center at Oakdale for evaluation. Sem will be held there until a judge determines he is no longer a danger to himself or the public.
Legal authorities said the ruling was unusual because insanity verdicts are rare in Iowa. One exception is Loren Huss, the Des Moines man found insane in the 1986 brutal killing of Marilyn Sheets. He was released by a Polk County jury May 25 after about 19 years of confinement.
“The legal standard is really quite high,” said John Whiston, clinical professor at the University of Iowa College of Law. “The legislature and courts over the years have made the decision that the defense has to establish a lot to establish this person isn’t going to be legally responsible.
“There is also lot of suspicion among jurors.”
Expert witnesses for the state and defense agreed Sem was mentally ill, but differed on whether he is schizophrenic or has a bipolar disorder.
Bob Rigg, director of the Criminal Defense Program at Drake University Law School, said psychiatrists rarely agree on a defendant’s mental illness, as happened in Sem’s case.
“Jurors just don’t like” the insanity defense, he said. “The impression most people have is that lawyers are making this thing up. They try to get guilty people out of being punished for their crimes.”
Alfredo Parrish, Sem’s lawyer, described Meadows’ ruling as “very enlightened.”
“Hopefully, jurors can become more understanding of this issue when you have decisions rendered like this by judges,” Parrish said. “Jurors really don’t appreciate the impact of mental illness on people’s actions.”
Parrish had recommended that Sem waive his right to a jury trial.
Meadows noted that Sem drifted from anger to elation before and after the attacks and reported hearing voices in his head.
Before he attended Maharishi University, Sem had been hospitalized between nearly a dozen times in 2002 and 2003 for psychiatric problems.
Sem had not taken psychiatric medications for several months before the stabbing.
“Shuvender Sem was incapable of distinguishing between the rightness or wrongness – illegality – of those acts,” the judge wrote.
Butler transferred to the school in fall 2003 from a college in Palm Desert, Calif. His family lives in La Quinta, Calif. Relatives could not be reached for comment Monday.