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Trial of Iowa prep football coach's death now in jury's hands

Photo by Bryon Houlgrave

Photo by Bryon Houlgrave

ALLISON, Iowa -- An Iowa man charged with killing a nationally known high school football coach could have carefully planned the shooting and still been insane, his defense attorneys maintained Wednesday, while prosecutors told jurors that argument didn't make sense.

Attorneys presented their closing arguments to jurors Wednesday morning in the first-degree murder trial of Mark Becker, 24, who is accused of fatally shooting Aplington-Parkersburg coach Ed Thomas on June 24, 2009. Becker has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

The 12-person jury deliberated for more than four hours Wednesday. Deliberations will continue today.

Becker gunned down Thomas, 58, in the school's makeshift weight room in front of students, shooting him at least six times before walking away. Becker told police that Thomas was Satan and that the coach had been tormenting him.

The shooting was especially shocking to Parkersburg residents because Thomas was known both for producing winning teams and for leading the community.

Though the defense doesn't dispute that Becker shot Thomas, and prosecutors agree that Becker suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, the question is Becker's mental status on the morning he shot Thomas. To prove Becker is insane, the defense had to show he didn't understand the nature and quality of his acts and he wasn't able to distinguish right from wrong.

During closing arguments, Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown focused on Becker's actions the morning of June 24. Brown was arrested after the shooting as he drove up to his house.

"This entire case is about Mark Becker's state of mind," Brown told the jury. "And whenever you look and examine Mark Becker's state of mind, you have to look at what he did, not just what some experts say about it."

Defense attorneys referred back to mental health experts, who said Becker could have rationally planned the shooting despite his irrational belief that Thomas was trying to control his mind with telepathic messages.

One defense expert, Cleveland psychiatrist Phillip Resnick, had introduced the jury to the concept of "rationality within irrationality." He testified that Becker could have taken rational steps -- such as loading a .22-caliber pistol and taking practice shots -- while still being insane at the time of the shooting.

Public defender Susan Flander said psychiatrists who testified for the prosecution ignored that concept, bringing their opinions into question.

"(The concept) is undisputed," Flander said. "They just ignored it, and because they ignored it, it just doesn't exist.

"There is no inconsistency between careful planing and insanity."

Brown dismissed Resnick's theory.

"This is something of Dr. Resnick's own making," Brown said. "It really kind of makes no sense. If you have sufficient mental capacity, it sort of doesn't go together that you were irrational. ... His phrasing is simply not part of Iowa law."

Flander, as she had done during the trial, included evidence of previous delusional episodes in which Thomas smashed bathroom walls in his parents' house and other episodes in which he had to be detained by police and committed to a psychiatric ward