October 07, 2022
Premium | Sauk Valley


The Zoloft defense?

Attorney seeks to cite effects of antidepressant, get Schroeder's confession tossed

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MORRISON – The teen who shot her mother in the head more than 2 years ago was under the influence of a prescription antidepressant she was forced to take, and therefore was not responsible for her actions, her attorney says.

James Mertes also is asking Whiteside County Court Judge Trish Senneff to suppress Anna Schroeder's confession and other statements to investigators, arguing that the interview was improper.

Schroeder, now 17, was 3 days past her 15th birthday when she shot her mother, Peggy Schroeder, 53, in the head in their Morrison home on July 3, 2017. 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.

Although they originally were charged in juvenile court, in June 2018 State's Attorney Terry Costello successfully argued that both girls should be tried as adults.

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.

Motions in her case will be argued Wednesday; her jury trial is set to begin Jan. 16 and is estimated to take 2 weeks.

The Zoloft defense

In his motion advising the court that he will seek an affirmative defense, Mertes says Schroeder was in a involuntarily drugged condition, thanks to the prescription medication Zoloft, that "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.

To that end, Costello wants to bar any testimony that Schroeder was under the influence of Zoloft when she shot her mother, unless and until Mertes establishes that there is scientific evidence to back up his claim that the drug caused her to lose her ability to realize she was about to commit a crime, and stop herself,

He's asking for a Frye hearing – a test used by the courts to determine the admissibility of scientific evidence.

Mertes plans to call one or more medical experts at trial to provide an opinion on the side effects of Zoloft; Costello argues that a Frye hearing is needed to show that the scientific principle on which that opinion will be based is not new, but is generally accepted in the medical or scientific field. Absent that, any testimony on the Zoloft's purported role should be barred, he says.

Mertes says a Frye hearing, which would be required before the trial begins, is not necessary because opinion testimony is not the type of evidence that is subject to the Frye standard, because such testimony regarding Zoloft already is generally accepted by the courts, and because it is not a new or novel theory, having been accepted as a defense in previous court cases over the last decade or so.

After being picked up at her father's home in Walnut, Mertes says Schroeder was subjected to a 2-hour "custodial interrogation," alone with three male officers in an interview room at the Bureau County Jail, beginning around 11:40 p.m. July 8.

She was read her rights, and when asked if she wanted a lawyer, responded "Mm, I don't know," according to a transcript of the interview. She wasn't asked again.

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, and the officers repeatedly told her they wanted to help her.

Because she initially was being processed as a minor, the state's Juvenile Court Act applies. The investigators violated that law by not getting an answer from her regarding a lawyer or whether she wanted to talk to them, Mertes argues.

In fact, had the interview happened just days earlier, when she was still 14, having a lawyer present during questioning would have been mandatory, he noted.

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, a violation of her right not to incriminate herself, Mertes says.

"With their tactics, the officers gave Anna the false impression that she could go home if she cooperated and answered their questions," he wrote in his motion. " Anna's statements were the result of inducement by hope of help and freedom to leave."

As of Friday, the state had not filed a response to the motion to suppress.

Other trial matters

• Both sides have agreed not to share potential penalties with the jury.

• Because of the extensive pretrial publicity, as an alternative to a request for a change of venue, Mertes is asking that potential jurors be questioned outside the presence of the rest of the pool, and for as long as needed, in order to assure an unbiased jury.

It's a process that was employed in the Knox County trial of notorious Sterling spree killer Nick Sheley.

Should this motion be denied, he would ask to commission a poll to study community prejudice in the case, and to seek a change of venue.

• Mertes is asking that the jury not be allowed to see, or attorneys or witnesses on either side refer to or discuss, autopsy or crime scene photos of Peggy Schroeder's body, which he says only will inflame the jurors without adding evidence pertinent to their ability to assess guilt or innocence.

Status of the Helm case

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

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

Helm turns 18 on Jan. 30; Schroeder on July 3.