EDITORIAL: Governor should clear path to Montwheeler accountability

Gov. Kate Brown shouldn’t force a widow with five children to slug her way through a lengthy lawsuit to learn the truth about her husband’s death. And that same fate shouldn’t be forced on a Weiser couple who want justice for their slain daughter.

Jessica Bates, through an attorney, has put Oregon state officials on notice she intends to sue. Bates was seriously injured and her husband David died in a collision south of Ontario last January. The collision happened, authorities contend, as Anthony Montwheeler fled police with his dying ex-wife, Annita Harmon, beside him. Authorities accused him of murdering Harmon.

Bates said she intends to ask for $5 million. The claim is, her attorney said, a way for her to hold the state accountable for what happened that awful January morning. Harmon’s parents say they want the same justice and accountability.

Getting it through the court system won’t be easy. State attorneys, zealous in defending government, likely would do what attorneys do in such cases – fight every step of the way. That would mean the cost and time of depositions – questioning witnesses under oath. Bates and the Harmons could find themselves in a law conference room, getting grilled by state attorneys.

And there would be discovery – the process of forcing the state to turn over records related to Montwheeler. Some state attorneys helped shield state officials from accountability. They counseled government officials to fight disclosure of records that would explain Montwheeler’s state care in the years leading up to the fatal wreck. No one should be surprised if those government lawyers resist disclosure of even more revealing documents held by the state.

This all means that the Bates and Harmon families could be years away from getting a satisfying explanation for what led to two deaths, a serious injury, and families forever shorn of normalcy.

It doesn’t have to be so.

As the Malheur Enterprise has reported, Montwheeler was put in state care after he was found guilty but insane in a kidnapping case in 1996 in Baker City. He was in and out of the state hospital in subsequent years, released into the community while still being considered mentally ill. The state cut him loose last December after he claimed he had been faking his sickness all along. Stunningly, a state doctor reversed his own opinion to conclude Montwheeler never showed signs of being insane.

Top executives at the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon State Hospital have revealed no concern about the state’s conduct. The now-disgraced Lynne Saxton, director for a few more days of the Oregon Health Authority, personally guided a state strategy to obstruct accountability. She and her staff have been more concerned with preserving secrecy than public integrity.

The governor can change that, and she should.

She should promise the Bates and Harmon families the justice and accountability they seek. The governor should promise our community and the public at large that she will not let silence in this case stand.

The governor needs to appoint a respected investigator or attorney to lead an independent review. This individual should get the staff needed to do the job to review any state document needed, to question any state employee without reservation. The review should explain with care how the Montwheeler case unfolded. Why did state doctors treat him as mentally ill in a period covering 20 years? How can a high school graduate fool so many professionals so long, if he did? And why, oh why, does the state release people it knows are dangerous? Are there gaps in the law that need to be plugged?

One issue is whether a review interferes with Montwheeler’s right to a fair trial on criminal charges arising out of January’s tragedy. The record is building that Montwheeler likely isn’t going to be tried any time soon – if ever. Once again, his mental condition is in question. Meantime, his attorneys have access to boxes of files from the Oregon State Hospital that the public doesn’t get to see.

As for the state, the official defiance must end. The Harmons, Jessica Bates, and five fatherless children deserve to know the truth and to see government employees and institutions don’t get to hide possible negligence behind a uniform policy of “mum’s the word.” – LZ