Montwheeler attorney asks for delay of competency hearing

VALE – Anthony Montwheeler’s lead defense attorney said he is unprepared to debate his client’s mental competency in court, asking the judge to delay a June hearing on the matter.

Circuit Court Judge Thomas Ryan scheduled a hearing on the delay for 9 a.m. Friday. Ryan, from Multnomah County, took over the case after local judges stepped down.

The 50-year-old faces murder and kidnapping charges in the kidnapping and killing of an ex-wife, Annita Harmon, outside an Ontario gas station and the death of Vale resident, David Bates, in a head-on collision during a police pursuit in January 2017.

A month before, the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board had set Montwheeler free after 19 years. He had been under their supervision since a court said he was guilty except for insanity in the kidnapping of another former wife and child.

The board released him from state supervision in December 2016 after Montwheeler said he had faked his mental illness to avoid prison.

State doctors and the board concluded he did not show any signs of mental illness and so they let him go as required by law.

Now, Montwheeler might again seek the insanity defense in his ongoing case.

But first, the judge must decide whether the his current mental state is sufficient enough to understand the legal proceedings, assist his defense counsel and enter a plea.

In a letter to the court this month, defense attorney David Falls of West Linn requested the judge delay a weeklong hearing in June to debate that question.

He said he has not been able to “work closely” with Montwheeler since March because his time had been consumed by the murder trial of a different client, which ended late last month.

“During the time that I have been unavailable to meet with Mr. Montwheeler because of my representation of Mr. Hawthorne, this defendant has refused to meet with other defense team members and the defense preparation has been delayed,” Falls wrote in a declaration filed May 2.

“This to me is clearly based on mental health deficits that Mr. Montwheeler cannot deal with at this time,” he said. “He has been denied non-biased mental health treatment since being transferred from St. Alphonsus Hospital in Boise to the Malheur Jail.”

Falls and other members of Montwheeler’s legal team did not return an email asking to elaborate on how their client’s care at the jail has been inadequate.

District Attorney David Goldthorpe wrote the judge last week, saying he would not object to the motion even though he “would like to take a strong position opposing” a delay and “the victim’s families object.” He said in an interview Thursday that it was the “realistic” option.

“If I objected and the judge ruled in my favor, he’d have a major appellate issue because (Falls) said under oath that he’s not prepared. That’s not Mr. Montwheeler’s fault. The court won’t allow him to be punished for his attorney’s own lack of preparedness,” said Goldthorpe. “If they lost the hearing, that’s probably what they would argue.”

Goldthorpe said delaying the hearing until July or August should not affect the trial now scheduled for July 2019.

“If it’s delayed, it’ll be because of the outcome of that hearing, not the timing of that hearing,” he said.

If the judge decides that Montwheeler isn’t fit for trial, he would be sent to the Oregon State Hospital for treatment until he has recovered enough for the case to continue.

State law allows that treatment for up to three years, although most people are stabilized within a few weeks or months.

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