Nampa resident Anthony Montwheeler sits silent with his head down during a recent court appearance in Malheur County Circuit Court. Two lawsuits filed by local families connected to Montwheeler's case have been deemed to be without merit by the Oregon Department of Justice. (The Enterprise/File).

VALE – The Oregon Department of Justice is moving to shut down an effort by two local families to hold the state responsible for the deaths of Annita Harmon and Vale resident David Bates more than two years ago.

The state also is suing Anthony Montwheeler, claiming he had a role in Bates’ death and should be liable for any damages owed to the Bates family.

Jessica Bates, the wife of David Bates, and Leslie Harmon, the father of Annita Harmon, sued the the state in December. Their suits assert the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board, the Oregon State Hospital, the Oregon Health Authority and psychiatrist Mukesh Mittal were negligent in releasing Montwheeler in December 2016.

The lawsuits focus on the events of Jan. 9, 2017, the date authorities assert Montwheeler kidnapped Harmon, an ex-wife, and then stabbed her to death in Ontario. Montwheeler is accused of subsequently colliding his truck with an SUV driven by David Bates, killing him and injuring Jessica, on Oregon Highway 201 outside of Ontario.

Harmon’s suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court seeks $3.75 million while Bates sued in Malheur County Circuit Court, seeking $500,000.

The Department of Justice, though, contends the families have no right to sue the state. In separate and nearly identical filings late last month, the state argued that the claims should be tossed out before either case goes before a jury.

The state asserts the agencies named in the lawsuits and Mittal are immune from claims for damages regarding the decision to release Montwheeler.

In the court filings, state attorneys said the state hospital, health authority and Mikesh can’t be held responsible for the decision to release Montwheeler because his release was ordered by the Security Review Board. And that board can’t be sued because it acts as a “quasi-judicial” body and that such bodies ought to be protected from liability so they can engage in “principled and fearless decision-making.”

In the Harmon case, the state admitted that the state board “had found at certain prior hearings that Montwheeler presented a substantial danger” but that “did not prevent the discharged required by the state’s failure to sustain its burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that Montwheeler continued to be affected by a qualifying mental disorder.”

In the Bates’ case, the state has drawn Montwheeler into the matter, claiming that his negligence “in whole or in part” caused David Bates’ death and Jessica Bates’ injuries. They said Montwheeler was responsible because of excessive speed, reckless driving, failure to drive on the right or within a lane, and fleeing police.

The state wants any damages that might be awarded to the Bates family be reduced for whatever share is attributable to Montwheeler’s actions.

A spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Justice said the agency couldn’t comment on pending legal matters.

Attorneys representing Harmon and Bates did not immediately return a request for comment.

In a separate criminal proceeding, Montwheeler faces charges of aggravated murder, murder, first-degree assault and first-degree kidnapping. Montwheeler pleaded not guilty Feb. 22 in Malheur County Circuit court and his trial is scheduled for September.

Malheur County District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe previously said he would seek the death penalty if Montwheeler is convicted.

In December Jessica Bates said she felt compelled to act.

“If I did not file this lawsuit, I would not be able to sleep at night. God forbid this would happen to someone else. Hopefully this lawsuit will change things for the better,” Bates wrote in an email to the Enterprise.

State officials have steadfastly refused to explain their handling of Montwheeler, asserting soon after the murders that they were bound by Montwheeler’s privacy rights as a patient. The Enterprise, however, used the state public records law to obtain records of the Psychiatric Security Review Board that detailed Montwheeler’s history.

Montwheeler was placed into the custody of the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board in 1997 after being found guilty except for insanity in a Baker County kidnapping case involving an ex-wife and child. He eventually was released from the Oregon State Hospital into community treatment, which is when he met and married Annita Harmon.

She subsequently divorced him because of domestic violence and abuse, her family says.

After Montwheeler served time in prison for an illegal scrap metal scheme, he was returned to the Oregon State Hospital, where he told doctors he had faked his mental illness. The Enterprise has previously reported that doctors there ultimately decided his claim was true and the board responsible for his supervision agreed.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: pat@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

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