EDITORIAL: While focus is on Montwheeler, victims deserve better

Anthony Montwheeler has put the Oregon justice system through its paces the past 20 years and he’s at it again to save himself. 

That’s clear from the latest report and testimony about his mental condition. He’s been masterful at pitching himself as a victim, all the while leaving the true victims without justice or resolution.

A state judge last week decided Montwheeler is in no condition to defend himself. This week, the Idaho man went back to the Oregon State Hospital for yet another round of care at taxpayer expense. The idea is that with a few months of professional help, doctors will get under control the depression that keeps Montwheeler from aiding in his own defense. The law is clear in this country – you can’t try a person who can’t defend themselves or understand what’s happening.

Montwheeler faces a potential death sentence for his latest charges of aggravated murder, assault and kidnapping. He’s been in custody since January 2017.

In 1997, Montwheeler was diverted from the justice system to the mental health system. He was judged guilty except for insanity for kidnapping in Baker County. He later claimed he ginned up the mental health issues. He didn’t want to go to prison.

In 2016, state experts concluded that Montwheeler indeed didn’t have a mental illness warranting his continued control by the state. They accepted Montwheeler’s claim he had been faking his illness for years.

Fast forward to last fall, when another state expert spent hours with Montwheeler. The task was to assess whether Montwheeler in fact was mentally ill. The report of Dr. Octavio Choi made clear Montwheeler was again getting creative with the truth. Choi found Montwheeler “intentionally fabricated” symptoms, that his claims to hear voices couldn’t be trusted, and that the defendant’s statements weren’t sufficiently reliable. In plain English, Montwheeler appeared to once again be making up what he thought a doctor would want to hear.

Choi found that Montwheeler was “potentially highly dangerous” but could benefit from treatment at the state hospital. The judge, with some reluctance, agreed.

That’s not as surprising a conclusion as it might seem. This is a controversial case with high emotions. Pushing ahead to prosecute Montwheeler would leave too much chance a higher court would erase any conviction because he wasn’t given the treatment experts said he needed. Justice would have been betrayed if a hurry to prosecution ended up derailing the case.

That said, no one should forget the trail of victims dating back decades. Families have been hurt and other people victimized by Montwheeler in the past. And more recently, the families of Annita Harmon of Weiser and David Bates of Vale continue to grapple with the pain of their deaths while patiently waiting for justice. Their hurt has been compounded by the state of Oregon’s refusal so far to explain its handling of Montwheeler over the years or to even say to the families so much as “We’re sorry.”

While Montwheeler recovers in Salem, prosecutors and defense attorneys ought to be mindful of those victims and what will serve them. As it now stands, Montwheeler won’t be in court to face his accusers for another year. The community and the families harmed should see resolution sooner than that. – LZ