A Baltimore County judge found James John Marchsteiner III guilty of first-degree murder Tuesday in the 2021 stabbing of a blind man.
After a trial that lasted several hours, Circuit Court Judge Vicki Ballou-Watts ruled that Marchsteiner, 49, was guilty of premeditated murder of 21-year-old Cody Mulligan, despite a long history of mental health issues that the defense argued should have reduced his charge to involuntary manslaughter.
At a sentencing scheduled for Wednesday morning, Ballou-Watts is expected to rule on whether Marchsteiner was criminally responsible for the killing. If Marchsteiner is found not criminally responsible, he will be committed to Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, the state’s maximum-security forensic psychiatric hospital, for an indefinite length of time.
Mulligan was stabbed outside his Rosedale home in the 1000 block of Sumter Avenue on Jan. 2, 2021, and died in the hospital days later. Marchsteiner lived across the street with his mother.
“Cody was an innocent victim in this case,” prosecutor Adam Lippe said in court Tuesday.
Mulligan became blind after being diagnosed at age 4 with juvenile Batten disease, a rare neurodegenerative disorder that also causes the loss of developmental skills, motor abilities and cognition.
The defense and prosecution agreed that Marchsteiner stabbed Mulligan multiple times, as captured on Ring camera video, but disagreed on Marchsteiner’s awareness of his actions at the time.
District public defender James Dills asked Ballou-Watts to find Marchsteiner guilty of manslaughter instead of murder, arguing that he had a lengthy history of significant mental health conditions and that, at the time, he was not capable of formulating an intent to kill Mulligan.
Both sides agreed that Marchsteiner was competent to stand trial Tuesday, meaning he was able to communicate with his attorney and assist in his own defense.
Mulligan’s 19-year-old cousin, Joshua Lausch, testified that he arrived in his car to pick up Mulligan on the afternoon of Jan. 2, 2021, when he saw Marchsteiner walking down the street with an unleashed dog, looking “skittish” and “creepy.” Lausch said he had decided to wait for Marchsteiner to pass his car before he noticed the knife and tried to warn his cousin.
“I was yelling at Cody to run away, but he didn’t know what was happening,” he said. “He ran to my cousin and started stabbing him.”
The Ring video footage showed Marchsteiner stabbing Mulligan in the torso, followed by a struggle as Mulligan tried to get away, Ballou-Watts said. Marchsteiner then grabbed Mulligan and stabbed him three more times. After Mulligan’s relatives rushed out of the house, Marchsteiner ran across the street to his own home, the judge said, describing the video.
Marchsteiner was arrested at the scene, according to court filings.
He testified Tuesday that he had been diagnosed with multiple mental health conditions and suffered from hallucinations and delusions. He first received psychiatric treatment when he was 13, he said. Marchsteiner said the start of the pandemic in 2020 interrupted his monthly appointments with a Johns Hopkins psychiatrist who prescribed him psychotropic medications.
Karen Simmonds, Marchsteiner’s sister, told the court that her brother called her on Jan. 2, 2021, and asked her to pray for him. Concerned about his mental state, she called Marchsteiner back to give him the number of a crisis hotline he could call. Asked to describe her brother’s mental health, she said it was “unstable at best.”
No mental health experts provided testimony Tuesday on Marchsteiner’s mental state, something Ballou-Watts noted in her decision, although Gills quoted records from medical staff at the Baltimore County Detention Center saying that Marchsteiner believed he was hearing divine revelations and that his food was covered in maggots.
“I would like to express my sympathies to Cody’s family,” Marchsteiner said on the stand. “I’m not a cold-blooded killer. I was suffering from delusions.”
He said he had watched Mulligan grow up and remembered watching him play football in the yard.
“I had no ill feelings towards Cody,” he said. “This event should never have occurred.”
Ballou-Watts acknowledged that Marchsteiner may have suffered from untreated mental health issues but said that based on the evidence, Mulligan’s killing was intentional.
“It can be true that the defendant had a mental health diagnosis, but it can also be true that he was able to be consistent about what he wanted to do that day,” said Ballou-Watts, referencing other actions Marchsteiner described taking on Jan. 2, including going to a methadone clinic, taking a shower and leaving the house to get money a neighbor owed him.
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In response to the verdict, Dills said the consequences of mental health issues have become more serious, with COVID exacerbating existing problems.
“It’s become something we see, unfortunately, every day in the criminal justice system,” Dills said.
More than a dozen members of Cody Mulligan’s family filled the courtroom on Tuesday. When Ballou-Watts announced the verdict, his parents and other relatives began to weep.
Former teammates and relatives described Mulligan as cheerful and determined, undeterred by his disability.
“He was my ultimate hero,” his father Mike Mulligan said Tuesday. “My inspiration.”
A talented high school wrestler at Sparrows Point High School, Mulligan was passionate about fitness and riding motorcycles. He earned a hunting license as a teenager and enjoyed hunting with his stepfather Jay Hessler. His stepfather said Mulligan’s dog Dixie still comes running when the family says the 21-year-old’s name.
“It’s been a long two years coming,” his mother, Sarah Hessler, said of the verdict. “It’s a relief.”