By Les Zaitz
VALE – A state judge Tuesday ordered a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether accused killer Anthony Montwheeler is competent to stand trial.
If he is found incompetent, proceedings in the murder case would pause.
Malheur County Senior Circuit Judge Patricia Sullivan acted after learning that Montwheeler, 49, had cut himself while in jail. He appeared by video at Tuesday’s court hearing Tuesday with the cut marks visible on his upper arm. He was dressed in a suicide smock, his attorney said.
The surprise development came on the day when Montwheeler was expected to enter pleas on charges he kidnapped and killed an ex-wife and killed a Vale man and injured his wife in a crash while eluding police.
Instead of taking a plea, the judge said she heard enough to worry that Montwheeler isn’t mentally capable of helping his defense.
Montwheeler was released from state custody last December after claiming he had faked mental illness for nearly 20 years. He had successfully asserted an insanity defense to 1996 charges in Baker County that he kidnapped his then-wife and son. He was in and out of the Oregon State Hospital in the following years, but state doctors concluded last fall he wasn’t mentally ill.
He was freed from state control without conditions. The following month, he was charged with kidnapping Annita Harmon from Weiser the morning of Jan. 9, driving her to Oregon, stabbing her to death, and then fleeing police. His vehicle collided on Oregon Highway 201 with a vehicle driven by David Bates of Vale. Bates died in the crash, and his wife Jessica was injured.
Montwheeler is charged with aggravated murder, assault and kidnapping. His attorneys have reserved the right to assert an insanity defense for him.
His lead attorney, David Falls of Oregon City, said in court Tuesday he couldn’t enter a plea as scheduled.
“I don’t think he’s competent to tell me what plea he wants to enter,” Falls said.
Falls said his investigator alerted him that he had seen cuts on Montwheeler, and Falls said he saw the same thing when he met with Montwheeler on Monday.
He said a psychologist said Montwheeler “needs psychiatric intervention.” Falls said if Montwheeler’s condition continues to degrade, he may be faced with the issue of whether his client is legally competent to stand trial.
That’s when Sullivan stepped in and ordered the evaluation. David Goldthorpe, Malheur County district attorney, had earlier sought an order sending Montwheeler to the state hospital to determine if he was mentally ill. That evaluation is separate from one used to establish whether Montwheeler can stand trial.
If Montwheeler is determined too mentally ill to stand trial, he would be ordered into treatment until he is. Such treatment is typically done at the state hospital.
During the hearing, Montwheeler sat with his head bowed, and didn’t speak.
Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe said Montwheeler told jailers he injured himself with his fingernails. He said the incident happened last week. He said Montwheeler was being closely observed by his jail staff but was not on a suicide watch.
Judge questions Montwheeler competency
By Les Zaitz
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