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Aaron Schaffhausen leaves the courtroom during a break in the trial to determine if he was insane when he killed his three young daughters.

Attorneys wrap up Schaffhausen trial: Rare illness or revenge?

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Attorneys wrap up Schaffhausen trial: Rare illness or revenge?
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The defense's expert witness, a clinical psychologist who claims Aaron Schaffhausen suffers from a rare mental illness and was insane when he killed his daughters, offered the only reasonable explanation for the murders, claimed public defender John Kucinski.


Lead prosecutor Gary Freyberg called the defense's diagnosis of catathymia "a wild and unsupported opinion." He said the evidence shows Schaffhausen acted out of anger and revenge.

Over a four-hour period Tuesday, the two attorneys made their closing arguments to the jury and a courtroom packed with observers, including Jessica Schaffhausen, Aaron's ex-wife and the mother of the children he admitted to killing July 10, 2012, in River Falls.

"He chose to kill them and betray everything 'parent' stands for because he was angry," said Freyberg, a Wisconsin assistant attorney general brought in to prosecute this St. Croix County case.

Kucinski told the jury he struggled to find an explanation for the crimes.

"Those three little girls -- soft, warm -- they look in your eyes. They love you. Aaron kills them. He cuts their throats," said Kucinski. Then, said the lawyer, the father shows his love by cleaning the girls, putting them in bed and kissing them good night.

None of the family or friends who testified during the trial said Schaffhausen didn't love his girls, said Kucinski.

"Whatever happened, this was unplanned," he said, refuting the prosecution's argument.

"If his goal is to kill these kids, what is the end goal?" asked the public defender.

He dismissed the prosecution's claim that buying a return ticket to North Dakota, Schaffhausen's calling his ex-wife to tell her he had killed the kids and turning himself in to police indicate rational planning.

He said Schaffhausen definitely wasn't thinking: "I'm going to sit in prison for the rest of my life, and that will make me happy."

Kucinski said a colleague suggested J. Reid Meloy, a clinical psychologist from California, and Meloy looked at the materials sent to him and said, "I know what happened."

"I paid him $25,000 to look at this case, and I'm damned glad I paid him $25,000," said Kucinski. "He was the best I could find because he's the guy who solved this puzzle that can tell us what happened."

Kucinski said Meloy's analysis shows Schaffhausen's rejection by his father and dependence on his mother led to a "a psychological and subconscious dependency." That dependency later transferred to his wife, who divorced him, leading him into a dark tunnel from which he could see no release except suicide or homicide, said the attorney.

"Subliminally he's trying to get rid of that dependency," said Kucinski. "In a sense, it's not about the people, it's the dependency."

"These children didn't have to die," countered Freyberg. "They died because their father made a choice -- that's the undeniable tragedy of this case."

There is no mystery or puzzle and the motive isn't complicated, said Freyberg.

"(Schaffhausen) chose the satisfaction of revenge over the satisfaction of the love of his daughters."

On its face, killing your children seems crazy to most people because it's beyond their comprehension, said Freyberg, but Schaffhausen had his reasons.

"What he wanted was more important than the lives of innocent people," said the attorney.

Some people do kill, knowing they risk prison, said Freyberg.

"That just means they are mean and callus and selfish to the point of being shocking," said Freyberg. "But shocking isn't legally insane."

He said the motivation has been proven, the evidence shows purposeful conduct on Schaffhausen's part and both the psychiatrist hired by the prosecution and the psychiatrist appointed by the court agree that Schaffhausen was legally sane.

Freyberg said Schaffhausen is self-centered, lacking in empathy, angry, jealous, stubborn, arrogant and narcissistic.

The attorney said the defendant's motivation was that he wanted to punish Jessica, and he talked to others about using the girls to hurt his ex-wife.

"All of this shows that he was willing to use the children as pawns to punish Jessica even before he upped the ante to violence," said Freyberg.

Catathymia as a motive is not an accepted theory, he said, noting that the court-appointed psychiatrist with 30 years of experience had not seen it used as a defense.

"The overwhelming evidence is that he's responsible for all four of these crimes," Freyberg told jurors. "Please do not be fooled by the wild theory of catathymia."

Monday's witness: Schaffhausen 'followed through'

Before, during and after the murders, Aaron Schaffhausen knew what he was doing and was in control when he killed his three daughters, a psychiatrist hired by the prosecution testified Monday.

"He did what he threatened to do," said Dr. Erik Knudson. "He followed through with what he had planned to do in advance."

Other evidence of Schaffhausen's ability to control his actions was the fact that he improvised during the killings, said Knudson. When strangling didn't kill his youngest daughter, Schaffhausen went to the kitchen, "got a better weapon" and used a knife to cut the throats of all three girls.

Knudson, who is associate medical director of Mendota Mental Health Institute and works part-time doing insanity-case evaluations, diagnosed Schaffhausen as having major depressive disorder, anti-social personality disorder and alcohol dependency.

But, he said, "Depression did not cause Mr. Schaffhausen to do what he did."

Knudson said in his opinion Schaffhausen started planning the visit to his ex-wife's home in River Falls at least five days ahead. Attempting to clean up after the murders also shows he knew what he had done was wrong, said the psychiatrist.

Knudson said he reviewed an eight-inch stack of police reports and interviews with people who had contact with Schaffhausen and then interviewed the defendant for six hours and 40 minutes on March 5.

"Mr. Schaffhausen's interaction style was the reason it took that long," said Knudson, saying the defendant wouldn't answer some questions and "provided very rehearsed information" in response to others. The interview continued without break with Schaffhausen eating a meal while it went on, said the doctor.

Knudson said Schaffhausen said his depression didn't interfere with his work: "He said he performed better than many of his peers even when depressed."

Schaffhausen was angry that his wife wanted a divorce, insisting that she should understand that his depression made him act as he did, said Knudson.

Even though other people said he had, Schaffhausen denied threatening to kill his children.

"He said that he never made any threats toward his children," said Knudson, adding that Schaffhausen said those allegations were like "the game Telephone" in which the original message is garbled as people pass it from one to another.

Schaffhausen said that during a party in March 2012 he had "an epiphany moment" and called his ex-wife to use the example of tying her up and making her choose which child to kill as a way to show her why he was in pain and what she was doing to cause that pain, reported Knudson.

"He said that her overreaction to that might have been the reason that he started thinking about killing the children."

Schaffhausen also said that prior to the murders, he had violent images, including visions of him dying, of the children dying and of killing other people, including his ex-wife's boyfriend and four people he believe convinced his ex-wife to go ahead with the divorce.

In Knudson's opinion those were fantasies, not hallucinations.

Knudson said Schaffhausen saw a link between harming his children and hurting his ex-wife: "He thought it would hurt her, and he thought it would help her understand what he went through."

Schaffhausen at first said he didn't know why he came to the Twin Cities the day before the murders, but later said he needed a break from work, reported Knudson.

He said Schaffhausen bought a plane ticket, realized that would be too expensive and then bought a train ticket.

"(That) shows plans as far out as five days before the homicide took place," said Knudson.

After he arrived in St. Paul, Schaffhausen rented a car, checked into a hotel, bought CDs, ate at a sushi restaurant, watched a movie and went back to his hotel to Skype with his kids without telling them he planned to visit the next day, said Knudson.

He said Schaffhausen reported being at the River Falls house for nearly two hours before he began killing the children.

Knudson said Schaffhausen claimed he was in "a dreamlike state" when he began choking his youngest daughter and as he got a knife from the kitchen and cut her throat and the throats of his other two daughters.

But, said Knudson, "It didn't cause him to lose awareness of what he was doing."

People in emotionally charged situations often can't remember parts of what happened, said Knudson. "It's normal."

There is nothing to suggest that being in that "dreamlike state" prevented Schaffhausen from making choices or understanding what was happening, said Knudson, who was skeptical of the defendant's description of his state of mind.

"I don't believe that Mr. Schaffhausen is all that reliable in reporting information," said Knudson.

He said Schaffhausen's actions after the murders also show an awareness and control.

"What he did was he tried to clean up a crime scene," said Knudson.

"He understood that he needed to be out of the house because Jessica was going to return," said the doctor. "It shows that he retained awareness of what was happening."

While Schaffhausen didn't say where he got the gasoline from, he did tell the psychiatrist about dumping it on cardboard in the basement and shutting off the furnace.

"He told me that he did not want to put himself in danger because the furnace might spark while he was in the basement," said Knudson. "I think that's very important."

After just killing three children and thinking of cleaning up and burning the house down, Schaffhausen knew his actions could put him in danger, said Knudson.

That, said the doctor, shows the defendant's ability to control his conduct.

He said Schaffhausen said that if he had really planned to burn the house, he would have made a fuse to ignite the house once he was out.

After leaving the house, Schaffhausen drove around, going to three convenience stores, making small purchases and disposing of a computer, cellphone, receipts, and other paperwork in different places.

"He did it in a way that didn't draw attention to himself," said Knudson.

Knudson said Schaffhausen said he eventually turned himself into police because he didn't feel he was safe: "He was worried about himself."

Knudson said he asked Schaffhausen if he knew what he did was wrong, but the man wouldn't answer.

The doctor also said he asked Schaffhausen what he would have done if other people had been at the house when he visited the girls.

"He flat out told me that we weren't going to talk about any hypothetical situations," said Knudson.

There is nothing to show that Schaffhausen was unaware of what he was doing, but apparently it was more difficult to manage the scene than he had expected, said Knudson.

He said that during the interview, Schaffhausen showed no sign of impairment, seemed to be in no emotional distress and showed no evidence of a distorted sense of reality or of delusions, hallucinations or brain damage.

He said Schaffhausen spoke clearly, in full sentences with good grammar, and provided "lengthy detailed responses."

Knudson said he has been hired to do 82 insanity-defense evaluations and evaluated 21 of those defendants as being not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. He charges $200 an hour to do NGI evaluations and said he will bill for over 100 hours on the Schaffhausen case.

Judy Wiff
Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.
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