The man was mentally ill when he stabbed a classmate at Maharishi University, prosecutors and the defense say.
Fairfield, Ia. – Prosecutors and defense attorneys of a former Maharishi University of Management student say he should be found not guilty of first-degree murder because he was insane at the time he stabbed a classmate in March 2004.
Shuvender Sem, 25, a diagnosed schizophrenic, had been off his medication for months when he stabbed Levi Butler, 19, in the chest on March 1, 2004, in front of dozens of students in the university’s dining hall, said Virginia Barchman, assistant attorney general.
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“Mr. Sem is a person who suffers from an extremely dangerous mental illness,” she said. “We ask the court to find this young man not guilty by reason of insanity.”
The stabbing stunned the Maharishi University campus, founded by practitioners of Transcendental Meditation and based on principles of peace and harmony. The murder also angered Butler’s family and friends, who said the university should have reported to police an attack earlier that day in which Sem stabbed a classmate in the cheek with a ballpoint pen.
Sem, charged with first-degree murder and assault with intent to commit serious injury, was scheduled to be tried Tuesday in Jefferson County District Court. Instead, attorneys submitted notebooks of psychiatric reports and depositions, saying they agreed on the facts of the case and wanted Judge Richard Meadows to decide whether Sem is guilty based on the stipulated evidence.
Meadows said he hoped to issue a ruling within two weeks. If convicted of first-degree murder, Sem faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
If Meadows finds Sem not guilty by reason of insanity, Sem will go to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center at Oakdale under the custody of the Department of Human Services, said Sem’s lawyer, Alfredo Parrish. The department will issue a report on his condition in 15 days. If Sem is held, human services will evaluate him every two months and send a report to Meadows, Parrish said.
Parrish said he recommended Sem waive his right to a jury trial because juries often don’t understand mental illness and might not acquit his client, even though psychiatrists agree Sem was insane at the time of the stabbing.
“You could have one juror who says mental illness doesn’t mean anything,” Parrish said. “A judge may be more enlightened.”
Sem told Meadows he was on two medications for his schizophrenia, but understood court proceedings.
“There are good and bad effects to the medication,” he said quietly. “I don’t hear the voice anymore, but there’s also a cloud in my mind because of the medication.”
Before attending Maharishi University, Sem had been hospitalized between nine and 12 times in 2002 and 2003 for psychiatric problems, Barchman said. The predominant diagnosis, she said, was paranoid schizophrenia, which caused auditory and visual hallucinations and acts of violence.
Butler transferred to the school in fall 2003 from the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif. Butler’s family, who live in La Quinta, Calif., did not attend Tuesday’s hearing. Barchman said she did not contact them before agreeing not to seek Sem’s conviction. The family is being represented by attorney Larry Scalise, who could not be reached for comment.
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