Luke Woodham's claims brought a sensational twist to a trial that is the precursor of several school shooting cases that will come before United States courts this year. It also appeared to confirm the worst fears of the many Americans whose first impulse in these cases is to suspect the influence of devilish cults.
Rarely, however, are those suspicions borne out by subsequent testimony. More often, investigators and reporters turn up the banal chronicle of a social misfit, a history of seething resentment that builds up into an explosion of anger, or the aftermath of a broken romance.
In this case, though, Luke Woodham recounted a sequence of devil-worship and deadly scheming centred on his school in the small town of Pearl, Mississippi, that is calculated to rekindle the worst fears of American parents. According to the police, the accused was involved with a group of teenagers led by 19-year-old Grant Boyette, who plotted to kill other pupils. Several alleged members of the group, along with Mr Boyette, are facing separate conspiracy charges.
Closing arguments were heard yesterday in the first trial, at which Luke Woodham stands accused of killing his mother by stabbing her with a butcher's knife. He will be accused at a second trial of shooting to death two of his classmates, one of them his former girlfriend, and wounding seven others. He was 16 at the time of the killings, which took place last October.
In court this week, Luke Woodham gave this version of what happened: "I remember I woke up that morning and I'd seen demons that I always saw when Grant told me to do something. They said I was nothing and I would never be anything if I didn't get to that school and kill those people."
Woodham's defence - in both the matricide and school-shooting cases, is based a plea that he is mentally ill and was not responsible for the killings. A medical expert testified that he suffered psychological problems, but two prosecution witnesses claimed that he was sane at the time.
The Mississippi killings have attracted great attention across the United States as the first in what became a spate of school shootings.
Two months after the Pearl killings, a 14-year-old shot a group of pupils at his school in West Paducah, Kentucky, killing three. In March, two boys aged 11 and 13, targeted school pupils in Jonesboro, Arkansas, with automatic gunfire as they trooped out of the building for a fire-alarm, killing five. April saw the death of a teacher, shot by a pupil while supervising a school dance, and two pupils were killed and 22 wounded last month in the state of Oregon after a 15-year-old went on a shooting spree in his school cafeteria. He is also charged with killing his parents.
The outbreak of school shootings has given a new impetus to campaigners for stricter gun control.Reuse content