Judge to decide this week if Montwheeler is fit to stand trial, state doctor says he is not

The current mental condition of Anthony Montwheeler, seen here in a court hearing earlier this year, is the focus of testimony in Malheur Circuit Court this week. (Pat Caldwell/The Enterprise)

The Oregon State Hospital’s top expert on mental illness and the law testified Monday morning that Anthony Montwheeler is not competent to stand trial for two alleged killings and a kidnapping in 2017.

Dr. Octavio Choi, a psychiatrist and director of the hospital’s Forensic Evaluation Services, diagnosed Montwheeler with adjustment disorder with depressive symptoms — more commonly known as mild to moderate depression. He also said that condition “significantly impaired” the man’s ability to understand court proceedings, particularly to make rational decisions about his options in the case.

“Mr. Montwheeler does not have total incapacity,” Choi said. “A key question is whether he understands how a plea bargain works and what rights one gives away. It’s a test of rationality.”

Montwheeler is accused of kidnapping and murdering an ex-wife, Annita Harmon, then killing David Bates in a head-on collision during a police chase between Ontario and Vale in January 2017. Just weeks earlier, he had been released from the Oregon State Hospital at the order of the state Psychiatric Security Review Board, which decided that he had faked mental illness for almost 20 years to avoid prison time in an earlier kidnapping case.

Choi was the first of several witnesses scheduled to speak this week about whether Montwheeler has a mental illness and if that condition limits his ability to defend himself in court.

If Multnomah County Circuit Judge Thomas Ryan decides that Montwheeler is unfit, he would order Montwheeler to the state hospital for treatment until his condition has improved. The hearing had been scheduled to last all week, but Ryan indicated Monday that he might decide as soon as Tuesday afternoon.

Before testimony started on Monday, the judge heard brief arguments related to a request from the Malheur Enterprise to release a copy of Choi’s competency evaluation. Ryan had previously sealed the document at the request of lead Defense Attorney David Falls and District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe, finding that disclosing the evaluation would invade Montwheeler’s privacy. Ryan told Publisher Les Zaitz that he would consider releasing the document after hearing testimony and once the document was introduced as an exhibit.

Reporter Jayme Fraser can be reached at (541) 473.3377 or [email protected].