EDITORIAL: Secrecy in Montwheeler case seems to serve state, not public interest

Once again, the public is being told to mind its own business when it comes to Anthony Montwheeler. First state officials and now a state judge have acted to prevent the public from learning crucial information about Montwheeler’s fitness for trial. The credibility of state government is as much at stake as Montwheeler’s guilt or innocence.

Montwheeler sits in the Malheur County Jail, awaiting trial for aggravated murder, assault and kidnapping related to the January 2017 murder of ex-wife, Annita Harmon and Vale resident Dave Bates and injuring Jessica Bates. The crimes occurred three weeks after Montwheeler was released from the Oregon State Hospital following his claim that he had been faking mental illness for 20 years.

The Malheur Enterprise fought a vigorous battle with state officials last year to learn about Montwheeler’s history. The public records, released in part willingly and in part with considerable resistance, spun out a shocking account. Montwheeler himself testified that he had been faking his illness to avoid prison for an earlier crime. He said he kept it up in part to live off the public dole, enjoying taxpayer-funded housing while on release from the state hospital.

To this day, state officials have yet to explain how all this happened. After his most recent charge, his defense team said he might again assert an insanity defense. When a judge grew worried about Montwheeler’s behavior while in the local jail, she ordered him back to the state hospital for evaluation.

His lawyer said later that the evaluation found that Montwheeler wasn’t fit for trial. That’s a different finding than whether he was mentally unfit at the time of the crime. The latest determination, if confirmed, forces a time out on the criminal case – allowing for Montwheeler to get treatment.

The public has a right to be suspicious of that finding. Montwheeler faked his condition once before, apparently misleading state doctors. There is good reason to wonder how a new team of evaluators guarded against being tricked while assessing Montwheeler.

That information is tucked away in the 37-page evaluation. It’s reasonable to assume that the latest evaluation reviewed Montwheeler’s earlier history, which means it likely assesses what happened over the 20 years he was under the state’s jurisdiction. The evaluation, finally, could give the public answers it has been seeking without success for over a year.

But for now, you can’t read it. State court officials were the first to block access. They made the report confidential reflexively based on internal processes, and with no apparent regard for why the public ought to see it. Multnomah Circuit Judge Thomas Ryan, assigned to handle the Montwheeler case, took over. He asked prosecutors and defense attorneys whether the report should be disclosed. He sided with them, concluding that releasing the report could unreasonably invade Montwheeler’s privacy. “Nothing before the court establishes that the public interest requires disclosure of the report,” Ryan said in his Feb. 6 order that formally sealed the document from public view.

He allowed the Enterprise to belatedly make the case that there was a public interest. He left the newspaper’s submission unanswered for a month, and the Enterprise then withdrew it to avoid claims it was using news stories to pressure the judge to act.

At the same time, though, Ryan scheduled and re-scheduled a court hearing precisely on the point of whether Montwheeler is fit for trial. Unless he intends to close the court proceedings, the information so sensitive the public can’t have it would be trotted out in open court.

The caution in handling sensitive mental health information is understandable. In most circumstances, the public shouldn’t be able to look through professional documents. But this isn’t most circumstances. Montwheeler is the one who said he he’d fooled the doctors, that he’d fooled taxpayers. His own attorney is the one that put on the public record the fact his client appears not fit for trial.

Disclosure of the evaluation report is vital. The public doesn’t deserve to again and again be told it can’t be trusted with information regarding Montwheeler. The state took that tack last year. It did so again to shield the evaluation report. More recently, the state deemed confidential a deputy’s request to shackle Montwheeler in court for public safety.

The justification that this is all to preserve Montwheeler’s privacy seems thin. Instead, it seems state government is pulling the shroud of privacy around Montwheeler to cloak its own conduct. That’s the very worst reason for slapping “confidential” on government records. – LZ