A Cornell University doctoral student from New Zealand who's charged with slashing his wife's throat on a nature trail in central New York plotted the killing and tried to destroy evidence by setting their home on fire, a prosecutor said at his murder trial Thursday.
The defense doesn't dispute that Blazej Kot, 25, killed Caroline Coffey, a postdoctoral researcher at the Ivy League school. But Joe Joch, his lawyer, countered in opening statements that Kot suffered from a psychiatric disorder known as "Capgras delusion," which made him think his 28-year-old companion had been replaced by an identical-looking impostor.
"You have to be willing to learn about mental illness and how it presents itself" for Kot to get a fair trial, Joch told the jury. "There is no simple explanation. The explanation is found in the human mind as it descends into the abyss."
While Kot will admit to the killing last June on the Black Diamond Trail near the couple's apartment on Ithaca's rural outskirts, the notion that he was propelled by an "extreme emotional disturbance" beyond his control is contradicted by his attempt to burn bloody clothing, computer records and other physical evidence, the prosecution said.
Rather than a sudden emotional outburst, "you're going to find out that this (crime) was planned and carried out by this man," Tompkins County Assistant District Attorney Andrew McElwee said.
Charged with murder, arson and tampering with physical evidence, Kot could get up to 25 years to life in prison if he's found guilty. The defense will urge jurors to reduce the murder charge to manslaughter. The trial is expected to take about three weeks.
Born to Polish parents in Zaire, Kot moved with his family to New Zealand, attended the University of Auckland and came to Cornell on a student visa to pursue a Ph.D in information science. As a teenager, he had exhibited schizophrenia-type traits that left him "always wondering if someone might be watching him" through electrical wall outlets, his lawyer said.
Typically aloof and shy with strangers, Kot blossomed socially at Cornell, where he and Coffey met and fell in love. They were married in Ithaca in October 2008 but saved up for an "exotic location" wedding ceremony in Costa Rica last May.
By then, however, Kot had taken a leave of absence from his doctoral program to work for a business startup. His 60-to-80-hour work weeks and the couple's mounting financial woes were contributing to an onset of depression, paranoia and other acute symptoms associated with Capgras delusion, a misidentification syndrome common in patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, the defense said.
"He was going to interrupt" a supposed conspiracy against him involving his wife with "a spectacular event," Joch argued. "He first began to think of his wife's death as an accident" and "that he would be somehow free" if she died.
On the evening of June 2, after Coffey loaded their wedding pictures onto her Facebook page, she was killed a few hundred yards from their apartment on a trail popular with bikers and joggers that extends between two parks.
Afterward, authorities said, Kot set fire to the apartment, then led police on a five-mile, high-speed chase after a state park officer spotted him in a parked car with dried blood on his arms. During the chase, Kot cut his throat with a knife, suffering critical wounds, but was saved after being airlifted to a hospital.