SALEM — A Beverly man was found guilty Wednesday of second-degree murder in the 2015 strangulation death of his wife.
With their verdict in the case against Axel Scherer, 48, the jury rejected his defense of lack of criminal responsibility, often referred to as an "insanity defense."
But the jurors also apparently rejected the arguments of prosecutors that the murder of Edith "Edie" Black-Scherer, 45, was premeditated, a required element of first-degree murder.
Scherer faces an automatic life sentence but will be eligible for parole after at least 15 years in prison. That parole eligibility date, which will be between 15 and 25 years, will be set by Salem Superior Court Judge James Lang at sentencing on Feb. 26.
Scherer, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder but who was found competent to stand trial, remains held at Bridgewater State Hospital, a state prison hospital. He has been committed there by a judge in a separate proceeding, at least through September.
Scherer showed no reaction as the jury foreman read the verdict, which was reached shortly after 2 p.m. on the second day of deliberations in the case.
Members of Black-Scherer's family appeared upset after the verdict.
"This was never just a case," said Heidi Smyth of Swampscott, the sister of Black-Scherer. "This was my baby sister, and I'll never get her back. This is just a chapter closed for her family and friends, (who will) put one foot in front of the other to march on and raise Edie's boys."
Those children are now 9 and 12 years old and live with Smyth.
Black-Scherer's other sister, Lynne Black, shook her head, tears in her eyes and her hand over her mouth, as she left court. Both sisters are expected to deliver victim-impact statements at Scherer's sentencing.
Scherer's brother, who testified on Tuesday, and a co-worker who testified last week, sat together in the courtroom. They embraced each other outside court.
Before the attack
Scherer and his wife had been separated for about a year, and Scherer had filed for divorce, accusing his wife of lying to have him hospitalized and of taking money from joint accounts — accusations that appeared to stem from paranoia.
Despite their separation, Black-Scherer continued trying to help Scherer, an electrical engineer whom friends compared to Steve Jobs, get help.
Days before the attack, Black-Scherer learned that her husband had skipped a visit to his doctor and tried to contact him by phone and text, without a response. She asked Beverly police to do a "well being check."
Officers found Scherer in bed, sleeping, in his Broughton Drive apartment.
After a visit to Lahey Hospital the following day, Black-Scherer invited Scherer to stay with her and the children in the family's Penny Lane home.
It was there that, on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, Scherer strangled his wife both manually and with the drawstring of her sweatshirt, then left her on the floor with a pillow wedged between her face and the frame of a bed in the guest bedroom. She was taken off life support five days later.
Throughout the trial, Scherer's lawyer, Michael Phelan, acknowledged that his client had strangled and suffocated his wife, but argued that his client was suffering from bipolar disorder and could not control himself.
But prosecutors James Gubitose and Susan Dolhun pointed to the testimony of the defense's own expert witness, Salem psychologist Mark Schaefer, who acknowledged that there was no evidence that Scherer was suffering from psychosis on the day of the strangulation, Nov. 16, 2015 — nor at any other point during that year.
A year before the killing, while in a manic phase of the illness, Scherer had been involuntarily committed, suffering from psychosis. But at the time of Black-Scherer's death, he was in a depressive phase.
The jury deliberated for eight hours over two days.
At around noon on Wednesday, they sent a note to Lang with five questions.
Three of the questions were requests for additional evidence: reports from the first responders and a transcript of Scherer's police interview. Lang told the jury that they could rely only on evidence introduced during the trial.
But the other two questions concerned when "premeditation" would have to have taken place and whether it could occur during an ongoing assault.
It was the first clear indication that jurors had already rejected Scherer's defense, but also showed that they were struggling with the concept of premeditation.
After some discussion with Gubitose, Dolhun and Phelan, Lang opted to tell jurors that Scherer's intent to kill his wife could be formed during an ongoing assault, but had to occur prior to the part of the attack that caused death.
The jury returned their verdict about 90 minutes later.
Jurors outside court declined to comment on their decision. Several embraced each other as they parted ways.
“The life of a vibrant, loving woman and mother was taken much too soon and no verdict can change that,” Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said in a statement released after the verdict. “It is my hope that everyone who loved Edie will find some peace knowing that the man responsible is being held accountable for his actions.”
Phelan declined to comment on the verdict, saying he will wait until after sentencing.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.