Malheur County, Oregon was stunned by terrible violence in recent years. In 2016 a man named Anthony Montwheeler was released from the state hospital, nearly two decades after being found “guilty except for insanity” for kidnapping his ex-wife and child. The Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board (PSRB) accepted his claim that he had faked his mental illness and therefore could no longer be held in state custody. Less than a month after his release, prosecutors allege, Montwheeler murdered his ex-wife and killed a motorist in a car crash. A judge ruled he was not competent to stand trial for these new charges and ordered him returned to the state hospital for treatment.
The incident prompted the Malheur Enterprise to take a closer look at Oregon’s policies and laws relating to people charged with serious crimes who were found “guilty except for insanity,” then released from the state psychiatric hospital or supervised community programs. With funding and editorial support from ProPublica as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, the newspaper recently uncovered that, of the people deemed legally insane in felony cases and then freed over the past 10 years, at least a third have been charged with new crimes.
“Mental health intersects with public safety in ways that affect all of us in this community,” said Les Zaitz, publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, opening up a local forum last week at Ontario, Oregon’s Four Rivers Cultural Center.
At the forum, Enterprise reporter Jayme Fraser presented her findings on some of the ways that these issues intersect to concerned community members and local officials, including Ontario Mayor Ron Verini, Ontario Mayor-Elect Riley Hill, Ontario City Councilors Dan Capron and Norm Crume, Malheur County District Attorney Dave Goldthorpe and Ontario Police Chief Cal Kunz. Fraser and Zaitz also took questions and listened to ideas for ways to potentially reform the system to better protect public safety while also protecting the rights of people with mental illness.
“We had some guiding questions throughout the course of our work,” said Fraser, who wrote the series. “The first one is pretty basic, and it’s one that the state couldn’t answer after the Montwheeler case. And that is: How often do people freed by the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board commit crimes once they’re released from state supervision? Then we wanted to know: How does Oregon’s system for managing the criminally insane compare to other states?”
Fraser found that more people use the insanity defense in Oregon than in other states and frees people from all supervision more quickly. “The closest comparison for us is Connecticut,” said Fraser. “They have a professional board just like us, and they have 20 people they are currently supervising. In Oregon, there are more than 500 people under supervision.”
Oregon is also one of five states that caps how long the state may supervise people, with most freed from supervision because of this time cap. Within three years, people freed by the PSRB were charged with new felonies more often than people freed from prison terms, Fraser also found. Family members were most often victims of violent crimes like serious assault and murder.
“I should also note that, it became obvious in our research that there are many people who did not commit new crimes and still struggle to re-enter the community,” said Fraser. “They struggled to find adequate care. A lot of the facilities that serve PSRB clients will only serve people who are under state supervision. … Many people became homeless. Others returned to the state hospital under civil commitment shortly after being freed by the state. And some people died.”
As Police Chief Kunz explained, the problem of inadequate care is exacerbated in the eastern part of the state, where Malheur County is located, because most facilities are in western Oregon. “We are kind of the forgotten island of the state as far as resources,” Kunz said. “There’s not a place to bring these people on this side of the state. … When we have concern from someone, we want to give them the help they need and hopefully prevent crime from happening. But when you don’t have those resources, you’re not able to get the treatment or help somebody really needs. It’s frustrating for police officers because that’s our goal.”
In response to an audience question about how many defendants coming through the courts are looked at for mental illness, District Attorney Goldthorpe estimated that, more than 60 percent of the time, some element of mental illness is brought up by either the defense attorney or the client.
“Our sheriff could tell you about the burden that is on the jail because the jail is no place to try to treat someone who is suffering from mental illness, whether they’ve committed a crime or not,” Goldthorpe said. “We’ve probably only allowed a guilty-but-for-insanity plea to be entered, by agreement of all parties, twice in two years. That’s not a very common thing to agree to. As a prosecutor I hold my personal bar pretty high as to what’s going to convince me that the person truly only committed the crime because of their mental illness.”
While no state legislators attended the Ontario event, the Malheur Enterprise’s report has made waves in the statehouse. Key lawmakers have said they plan to rewrite the state’s policies, including reforming Oregon’s time cap requiring the end of state oversight the moment a criminally insane person would have completed the maximum prison sentence for the crime, in order to have doctors conclude that people can live on their own without posing a danger to themselves or others.