Montwheeler prosecution hinges on new mental health findings

By Jayme Fraser

The Enterprise

VALE – The aggravated murder trial of Anthony Montwheeler might be put on hold for as long as three years after the Oregon State Hospital said a mental illness makes him unfit to stand trial, a finding that also delays a decision on whether he can successfully employ the insanity defense.

Montweeler’s record of crime has often tangled with competing medical judgments of whether he has a mental illness and if it causes his violent behavior. Psychiatrists can produce a variety of reports during a criminal case. Each document can potentially pause prosecution while the state hospital may be forced by law to release someone without ever facing trial, as was the case in a 1997 Aloha murder.

Montwheeler is accused of killing two people in January 2017, just three weeks after being released from the state hospital. According to charging documents, Montwheeler stabbed to death his ex-wife, Annita Harmon of Weiser, and killed David Bates of Vale in a head-on collision during a police pursuit. Bate’s wife, Jessica, was seriously injured in the crash south of Ontario. If the case reaches trial, Montwheeler will face the death penalty.

If he were to use the insanity defense, Montwheeler might once again be placed under the supervision of the state Psychiatric Security Review Board and sent to the state hospital rather than prison. In 1997, he was first placed under the board’s supervision after being found guilty except for insanity for the kidnapping of his first wife and their 3-year-old son.

Although a judge ordered custody of Montwheeler for up to 70 years, the security review board discharged him in December 2016. It did so after Montwheeler made a convincing argument he had faked mental illness for 20 years to avoid prison. A state psychiatrist agreed Montwheeler displayed no signs of a mental illness that qualifies for the insanity defense.

Fitness evaluation

Today, Montwheeler’s trial for those deaths hinges on how the court handles the state hospital’s report that he has a mental illness impairing his ability to stand trial.

The 37-page report has not been released to the public, but related motions reveal the overall conclusion of state psychiatrists.

Montwheeler’s attorney, David Falls of West Linn, has asked the court to transfer his client back to the state hospital for treatment until he has recovered enough to continue the court case. Malheur County District Attorney David Goldthorpe has said he will contest the fitness finding and opposes the request to transfer Montwheeler out of jail.

The issue will be debated at a hearing scheduled for in Malheur County Circuit Court on Friday, March 2.

State hospital officials on Monday wouldn’t discuss Montwheeler’s evaluation, but did outline what goes into preparing such reports. That duty falls to the hospital’s Forensic Evaluation Services, which is separate from the treatment staff.

When a defendant is ordered to the state hospital to determine their fitness for trial, doctors create a care plan. Patients are observed around the clock by staff, who note potential symptoms of mental illness and general behavior. Such information is the basis for the report back to the court.

“If necessary, we ask follow up questions of the treatment providers, and in most cases we interview the patient,” said Dr. Mandy Davies, hospital associate director of the forensic unit. “We might do psychological or neurological testing of the patients.”

She said someone could be deemed unfit to stand trial for three reasons: if the person is too mentally ill to understand what is happening in court, isn’t able to aid the defense attorney, or can’t independently make choices about the case.

Davies said mental illness can impair fairness of the trial. For instance, Davies said, someone might be so ill that they can’t give accurate information “not because they’re lying, per se, but because their sense of reality is impacted by their mental illness.”

Or, they might not fully understand what it means to plead “guilty except for insanity.” Choosing that defense includes admitting to the crime.

“We don’t want them giving information that could incriminate themselves when their mental illness is so severe they could not understand,” she said.

Cap on treatment period

If the judge concludes Montwheeler isn’t fit, he would go back to the state hospital, where doctors would have up to three years to treat him enough that he could continue with the court case.

If he isn’t stable after that time, Montwheeler would be discharged, along with a recommended treatment plan to follow. At that point, county officials could seek to return Montwheeler under civil procedures that wouldn’t resolve his criminal charges.

Rebeka Gipson-King, state hospital spokeswoman, said rarely do defendants hit that three-year limitation.

But it does happen.

In 1997, Donn T. Spinosa was charged with aggravated murder for killing his ex-wife by stabbing her up to 40 times.

Spinosa was deemed unfit for trial after the state hospital diagnosed him with “severe and persistent” schizophrenia.

“He walks in circles to avoid becoming a zombie. He’s sure his sister kills 40,000 women a day. He sometimes sings his answers,” a state report said, as quoted by The Oregonian.

Three years after his hospitalization, he still wasn’t fit for trial and the murder charges were dismissed.

Rather than let Spinosa go free, prosecutors resorted to a civil commitment to keep him in the state hospital. The standard is different from an insanity defense, and instead requires only that a person be a danger to themselves or the community or can’t care for themselves.

Unlike a criminal case that can trigger a years-long commitment, such civil orders must be renewed in court every six months or the person is released.

In 2010, he was deemed fit, faced the new charges for the old crime, but then relapsed. Again, the charges were dropped. He was at the center of a legal battle in the ensuing years over whether authorities had properly kept him hospitalized.

As of last August, he was still in the state hospital.

Spinosa has recently requested to spend his civil commitment in a treatment program outside the state hospital.

Jayme Fraser: [email protected], 541-473-3377.