Jury mulls fate of Beverly man charged in wife's death

JAIME CAMPOS/Staff photo Axel Scherer is brought in at the Salem Superior Court in Salem after being charged with murdering his wife Edith "Edie" Black-Scherer in 2015. 2/4/2019 [[MER1902041144300801]]

BEVERLY — "If Axel Scherer wasn't mentally ill, Edie would be here today," his lawyer, Michael Phelan, told a Salem Superior Court jury Tuesday. 

"How many people knew Axel Scherer was mentally ill?" Phelan asked the jury, before answering his own question. "Just about everyone."

Prosecutor James Gubitose, however, argued mental illness alone isn't enough to absolve Scherer of responsibility for the murder of his wife, Edith Black-Scherer, in November of 2015.

"Millions of people in the United States suffer from mental health issues," Gubitose told the jury. "Does that mean they're all not criminally responsible and can do whatever they want?"

Scherer, 48, "knew what he was doing," Gubitose argued. "Every credible piece of evidence shows you that." 

And the most damaging piece of evidence, suggested the prosecutor: the testimony of Scherer's own expert witness, Salem psychologist Mark Schaeffer. 

Schaeffer had conceded that there was no evidence that Scherer was psychotic at the time he strangled and smothered his wife – or at any point during 2015, Gubitose reminded jurors. 

"Dr. Schaefer even said he could appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions," Gubitose said. "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." 

That left the question of whether he could control himself. 

Gubitose suggested Scherer was in full control that day. 

"He killed her three different ways," said Gubitose, describing the ligature made with the drawstring of her sweatshirt, the injuries believed to have been caused by strangling her with his hands, and then, finally, how she was found on the floor with a pillow wedged between the bedframe and her face. 

"He made sure she was dead," the prosecutor argued. "When he killed her those three different ways, he did it with deliberate premeditation." 

Scherer's lawyer disputed that. 

"This is absolutely a sad case," Phelan said, recounting his client's descent into bipolar disorder in 2013 and 2014, when he was hospitalized in a manic state with psychotic features. 

It was his wife who had gone to court to have him involuntarily committed to Bayridge Hospital. 

"Clearly, there's something going on with Mr. Scherer at this time," Phelan said. 

A year later, Scherer was profoundly depressed. His wife called police to do a well-being check at Scherer's apartment on Broughton Drive in Beverly.  

He would spend the next day at Lahey Hospital and then the rest of the weekend at the couple's home on Penny Lane in Beverly, where Black-Scherer lived with the children. 

Phelan suggested that was an indication of just how unwell his client was at the time. 

He urged jurors to consider records from the Middleton Jail, where, two months after the killing, Scherer began to report delusions and hallucinations. A court clinic psychologist believed he was psychotic on the day in late January 2016, that he was brought to Superior Court for arraignment. 

"He has no benefit to gain from the killing of his wife," Phelan suggested, saying the prosecution's theory of the case "defies logic." 

But Gubitose suggested Scherer's motive was simply resentment and rage at his wife, pointing to the timeline Scherer had written, calling his wife a liar who had taken the couple's money. 

"He wakes up with police in his bedroom and he's not happy," Gubitose said. 

Gubitose also questioned the expert's decision not to listen to the recording of the interview with police before concluding that Scherer was not criminally responsible. 

"Don't you think it would be important?" Gubitose recalled asking Schaefer. "'No, I read the report,'" the prosecutor quoted Schaefer as saying. 

"Every bit of evidence points to the fact he was criminally responsible," Gubitose argued. 

Phelan urged the jurors to listen again to Scherer's confession to police, "not only the content, listen to how it's said, what his demeanor is." 

So did Gubitose, telling them that they were in a better position to assess Scherer's mental state that day than someone who hadn't heard it.

The prosecutor concluded by holding up a photo of Black-Scherer, who was 45, a mother of two and recently published author when she was killed. 

"He destroyed everything she was, and everything she was going to be," Gubitose said.  

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.