A murder defendant’s case was damaged by the testimony of his own expert witness.
On November 16, 2015, Edith “Edie” Black-Scherer was found on the floor with a pillow wedged between the bedframe and her face. Black-Scherer is believed to have been killed by the ligature made with the drawstring of her sweatshirt, by strangulation with hands, and suffocation with a pillow. Black-Scherer was taken off life support five days later.
Black-Scherer, 45, was the mother of two children and a recently published author at the time of her death.
Black-Scherer’s husband, Axel Scherer, was implicated in her death. Scherer was charged with murder in connection with his wife’s death. Scherer admitted that he strangled his wife, but claimed mental illness as a defense.
At trial, Prosecutor James Gubitose argued that mental illness alone was not enough to absolve Scherer of responsibility for the murder of his wife. Gubitose told the jury, “Millions of people in the United States suffer from mental health issues. . . . Does that mean they’re all not criminally responsible and can do whatever they want?” Gubitose argued that Scherer “knew what he was doing. . . . Every credible piece of evidence shows you that.”
Scherer’s own expert witness, psychologist Mark Schaeffer, provided the most damaging piece of evidence. Schaeffer testified that there was no evidence that Scherer was psychotic at the time that he strangled and smothered his wife. Schaeffer also conceded that there was no evidence that Scherer was psychotic at any point during 2015.
Gubitose pointed out that, “Dr. Schaefer even said he could appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions. . . . He knew what he was doing was wrong, according to the expert hired to help him. He was thinking clearly enough to understand that what he was doing when he was killing Edie was wrong.” Gubitose also took issue with the fact that the expert had decided not to listen to the recording of the interview with the police before he concluded that Scherer was not criminally responsible.
Scherer’s defense attorney, Michael Phelan, argued that “If Axel Scherer wasn’t mentally ill, Edith would be here today.” He told the jury that his client had suffered from bipolar disorder in 2013 and 2014 and that he had been hospitalized in a manic state with psychotic features. Phelan said, “Clearly, there’s something going on with Mr. Scherer at this time.”
Phelan urged the jury to consider Scherer’s medical records from jail, where he reported delusions and hallucinations two months after the killing. Additionally, a court clinic psychologist believed that Scherer was psychotic on the day of his arraignment in January 2016. Phelan said that the prosecution’s theory of the case “defies logic” and that Scherer had no benefit to gain from the killing of his wife.
Scherer, 48, was convicted of second-degree murder. He will receive life in prison, but become eligible for parole sometime after serving 15 years. Scherer will be sentenced by Salem Superior Court Judge James Lang at a hearing on February 26.