BEVERLY — Edith Black-Scherer “had twinkling, beautiful blue eyes,” her oldest sister, Lynne Black, said.
Along with her good looks, there was intelligence. “She was the smartest of us all,” recalled her other sister, Heidi Smyth.
Smyth told jurors how the baby of the family, “Edie,” attended Marblehead schools, graduated from Northeastern University, got a master’s degree from Boston College, had a successful career in educational and health care administration, and even wrote a book.
Black-Scherer was also kind.
So even as Axel Scherer, always a bit arrogant and a bit of a “know-it-all,” according to her sisters, began growing more abrasive and unpredictable, his wife tried, unsuccessfully, to get him to accept help.
Now, more than three years after Black-Scherer, 45, was found wedged under a bed, with a pillow jammed between her face and the bedframe, inside the couple’s Beverly home, Scherer, 48, is standing trial on a first-degree murder charge in Salem Superior Court. Jurors heard opening statements Wednesday.
Smyth recalled pleading with her brother-in-law, whose anger only grew after Black-Scherer had him committed to Bayridge Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Lynn, for three days in 2014.
“Edie wants to help you,” Smyth told Scherer. “No, she doesn’t,” Scherer responded.
He had already moved out of the couple’s Beverly home, blaming his wife for “micromanaging” him and for setbacks in his career as an electrical engineer, after she had encouraged him to seek a promotion that did not work out well. He would then file for divorce.
A year later, after another effort to get him some help for what had been diagnosed as bipolar disorder, Black-Scherer was so concerned for her husband that she insisted he stay at the home they had once shared, in a guest bedroom, while he attended a day program at Lahey Hospital.
Within days, she would be on life support, pronounced dead five days after Scherer strangled her with a drawstring from her sweatshirt and put a pillow over her face, Gubitose said.
He admitted to police that he killed her, but blames bipolar disorder.
Prosecutor James Gubitose told jurors, however, that Scherer, despite being diagnosed with mental illness, fully understood what he was doing — and why.
“The defendant killed his wife, Edie Black-Scherer, because of rage and resentment,” Gubitose said in his opening statement. “That’s the reason he did it, not because he was mentally ill.”
There was no indication, contrary to what defense experts are expected to say on the stand, that Scherer was in the throes of a psychotic episode, Gubitose said. The prosecutor noted that, in an interview with police shortly afterward, Scherer was “lucid,” able to understand their questions and provide answers.
Days before the killing, Gubitose told jurors, Black-Scherer had discovered that her estranged husband had lied to her about going to the doctor’s office that day. She drove to his Broughton Drive apartment and saw his car in the driveway, but got no response.
She called Beverly police to conduct a “well-being” check, Patrolman Hal Geary testified.
“He wasn’t happy,” Gubitose told the jury.
At Lahey, he was evaluated. Gubitose said records will show there was no evidence of psychosis or mania.
The following Monday, while their two young sons were at an afterschool program, Scherer killed his wife, Gubitose said, calling the crime premeditated.
Scherer’s lawyer, Michael Phelan, painted a different picture, of a man whose decline began a couple of years before Black-Scherer’s death.
“In 2013, life is good,” Phelan told jurors. Scherer, originally from Germany, was a highly-paid electrical engineer for Cadence, a multinational software development firm. He had a beautiful home on Penny Lane, a beautiful wife, nice cars, and two children.
But toward the end of that year, people around him could tell Scherer was having problems. He suffered from insomnia, and began speaking in a monotone voice. He went on the antidepressant Zoloft, as his primary care doctor explored possible diagnoses.
Over the next few months, Phelan said, Scherer also began acting erratically at work, walking in on meetings he wasn’t invited to join, and insisting on changing light bulbs, a task far beneath his job title.
Then, in September 2014, Scherer got into a verbal altercation with an employee at a cellphone store in the Northshore Mall, Phelan told jurors, and was banned from returning there.
Phelan said it was shortly after that incident that Scherer’s wife had him committed to Bayridge Hospital, where, the lawyer said, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic and manic behavior. He was prescribed Risperdal, an anti-psychotic medication.
Over the course of the next year, Scherer would be placed on different medications — always reluctantly.
And after being taken to Lahey the week prior to his wife’s death, Phelan said his client still did not want help, rejecting an in-patient stay in favor of a day program.
Phelan said his expert, Salem psychologist Mark Schaefer, will testify that Scherer suffers from bipolar disorder with psychotic traits.
Because Scherer is relying on what is colloquially known as an insanity defense, it is up to prosecutors Gubitose and Susan Dolhun to prove to jurors that Scherer was, in fact, capable of knowing right from wrong and able to control his behavior.
Smyth and Black told jurors that Scherer was highly intelligent, but also stubborn, a trait they had seen early in their sister’s relationship with him. Still, they got along with him.
Smyth said she and her brother-in-law shared a love of fine wine and gourmet food. But one day, not long after Scherer’s 2014 hospitalization, she brought up the subject of getting help. As a registered nurse for more than three decades, Smyth had contacts in the medical field, she told him.
“I don’t need any help,” she said Scherer told her. “I’m fine.”
As he spoke, he raised his hands.
“I got nervous and backed away,” Smyth said.
Besides Black-Scherer’s sisters and Geary, the jury of nine women and seven men heard from Sgt. Dan Brown, who was on his way to get his utility belt for a paid detail on the afternoon of Nov. 16, 2015, when Scherer came up behind him in a rear doorway of the Beverly police station.
“He said he wanted to report a crime,” Brown testified. Scherer seemed agitated, and was disheveled and sweating profusely, Brown testified.
Brown, who did not yet have his radio or anything with which he could protect himself, led Scherer back outside to the parking lot.
“I asked him what it was he wanted to report. He said it was something serious. He said he had just killed his wife.”
Stunned, Brown at first thought perhaps there had been an accident.
“No, no accident,” Scherer told the officer.
Then Scherer put his hands out in front of himself and “made a motion like he was strangling somebody,” said Brown, pantomiming the gesture.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.