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Thursday, September 8, 2011
Court upholds Mark Becker's conviction

Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- An appeals court on Thursday upheld the first-degree murder conviction of a mentally ill man who shot and killed a beloved high school football coach, rejecting arguments that jurors were given improper instructions about his insanity defense.

Mark Becker, 26, had argued that he was legally insane when he shot Aplington-Parkersburg High School coach Ed Thomas in June 2009. A jury found Becker guilty last year and rejected his insanity defense. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Jurors took 24 hours over four days to reach a verdict in Mark Becker's trial.

Doctors testified that Becker is a paranoid schizophrenic but disagreed over whether he knew right from wrong when he walked in the school's weight room, shot Thomas six times and stomped on his head while screaming about how Thomas was Satan. Testimony showed that Becker's illness caused him to believe Thomas was evil.

Thomas was one of the most successful high school football coaches in Iowa history and had helped the community rebound after a powerful tornado devastated the area in May 2008. Becker had played for Thomas before graduating high school in 2004. He later dropped out of college, abused drugs and suffered from mental illness.

Becker's lawyers argued in his appeal that a judge gave jurors flawed instructions about how to define insanity and did not tell them that a not-guilty-by-insanity verdict would lead to Becker's commitment for mental health treatment.

In a 3-0 decision, the Iowa Court of Appeals acknowledged Thursday that both issues were close calls under the law and both decisions could have hurt Becker's defense. But they upheld the conviction.

The first issue was whether jurors should have been told to consider whether Becker "suffered from such a deranged condition of the mind" that he did not know what he was doing when he shot Thomas -- the definition of insane in Iowa law.

A judge omitted that language and instructed jurors instead to determine whether Thomas had the "mental capacity" to understand his actions. Becker's attorneys said the instruction allowed prosecutors to argue Becker must have been sane because he was able to drive his parents' car, find and load a gun and locate Thomas at the school.

Chief Judge Rosemary Shaw Sackett agreed the instruction was flawed and could have helped prosecutors and hurt Becker's defense, noting there was evidence he couldn't tell right from wrong because of his mental state.

"Indeed, he believed shooting was the right thing to do, to aid the community," she wrote.

But she added that another jury instruction spelled out the correct definition of insanity. Taken together, the jury was properly instructed and able to address "whether Becker had a diseased or deranged condition that robbed him of the ability to know what he was doing was wrong."

The court also rejected Becker's argument that jurors should have been instructed that a not-guilty-by-insanity verdict would lead to his commitment at a state mental health institution. Jurors had asked the judge during deliberations what would happen to Becker if they ruled he was insane, but the judge told them not to consider consequences.

Sackett wrote the idea of informing jurors about consequences is the subject of debate, but that other cases in Iowa set the precedent that such instructions are "inappropriate and unnecessary."

Ed Thomas' son, Todd, a financial consultant and assistant football coach at the school, said the decision spares family members and students who witnessed the shooting the prospect of going through another painful trial.

"This doesn't bring Dad back but it's another step in moving forward and moving on," he said.

He said he feels terrible for Becker's parents but that he is still working through his feelings toward their son.

"I've forgiven him some. I'm just not at 100 percent," he said. "I believe the jury got it correct. I do think that Mark has some mental illness but by rule of insanity I do not believe he was insane."