EDITORIAL: Community deserves access to Montwheeler evaluation

Once again, the public is being shut out from information about Anthony Montwheeler, the man accused of two murders a year ago in Malheur County. This time, citizens are left in the dark about the latest mental evaluation of Montwheeler.

A state judge ordered Montwheeler sent to the Oregon State Hospital for evaluation. The job of the medical staff there was to assess whether he was fit to stand trial.

Three weeks ago, state hospital professionals filed their report with the court, and it was made part of Montwheeler’s case file in Malheur County Circuit Court. The 37-page report, though, isn’t accessible to the public.

His lawyer disclosed in a filing last week that the report concluded Montwheeler was not fit for trial. If the court agrees, that means Montwheeler would be returned to the state hospital for an uncertain time for treatment.

The conclusion he isn’t fit is remarkable given recent history. It comes little more than a year after the same institution determined Montwheeler was not mentally ill. Montwheeler had insisted he had been faking his illness for years to avoid prison in an earlier case – a position state health officials didn’t dispute. Yet three weeks after being let out of the state hospital, Montwheeler was accused of kidnapping and murdering an ex-wife and killing a Vale man in a subsequent collision.

All of this raises new questions. On what basis did state officials conclude Montwheeler needed mental health treatment? How did they determine he wasn’t faking this time? Or did they determine that the conclusion he was faking was itself wrong, and that state psychiatrists in late 2016 made a mistake?

The report likely provides answers, but the community doesn’t get to see them, at least not now. The state Judicial Department, which manages the state court system, apparently decided on its own that the public wasn’t entitled to see the report. Any citizen trying to read it through the online system is denied access.

As of Monday, the Judicial Department hadn’t answered how that could be. The local trial court administrator, Marilee Aldred, initially said state law allowed her to keep the document confidential. We couldn’t identify any state law that specifically declares that this evaluation is off limits when it’s part of a public criminal case.

Now, Multnomah Circuit Judge Tom Ryan, assigned to handle the Montwheeler case, has taken “under advisement” a request from the Malheur Enterprise to see the document. And Montwheeler’s attorney last week spoke up for his client, asking Ryan to order that the document be sealed and kept away from the public. He wanted to do so, he said, to protect Montwheeler’s privacy and because state law required the secrecy.

Other Oregon judges, in other cases, have concluded that’s not so.

On Tuesday, Malheur County District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe told the court that he has “no objection” to a protective order if the documents “are not already considered public records.”

This isn’t first time officials have tried to keep information about Montwheeler awa from the public. The Enterprise battled last year with the state Psychiatric Security Review Board for the records it relied on in deciding to free Montwheeler. The board went so far as to sue the newspaper to avoid releasing the records, a suit dropped at the prodding of Gov. Kate Brown. The documents released then provided the community important new details about Montwheeler’s time under state jurisdiction.

The public ought to be trusted with the latest report as well. This crime rattled Malheur County and the state’s handling of Montwheeler’s treatment over 20 years has drawn sharp questioning and the threat of lawsuits. The state has refused repeatedly to account for its conduct, staying mum even on whether it did an internal review about what happened at the state hospital.

Secrecy in this case is no way to build public understanding and confidence in the system. In the absence of the report, the community is left to speculate and fume. The better course is to make the report public. – LZ