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‘What’s this guy doing loose in Malheur County?’

Image by Curtis Perry via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Anthony Montwheeler spent 20 years in an Oregon mental healthy facility after being found not guilty of kidnapping his ex-wife by reason of insanity. He was released after claiming that he’d been faking the whole time, then immediately kidnapped another ex-wife, eventually stabbing her and killing another person during an ensuing car chase, all in full view of witnesses. And yes, he’s going to plead insanity again. How did he get the “not guilty” verdict 20 years ago? How did he get out? Is he mentally ill; what even is “mental illness” in the criminal justice context? In Rolling Stone, Rob Fischer walks us through Montwheeler’s case and the many blurry lines and troubling policies around the insanity defense in the U.S.

The hearing lasted more than two hours, but Montwheeler testified for only eight and a half minutes. When a state official asked if he ever had trouble sleeping, Montwheeler said, “No. I’ve always been able to sleep at night.” Had he ever been depressed, or felt that life is not worth living? “I’ve always been happy,” Montwheeler said. “I mean, I’ve never been depressed.” So then, the official pressed, you’ve never had any trouble getting out of bed and going about your activities? “No,” Montwheeler replied. “I’ve always showed up for work. I’ve always been Johnny on the spot.”

After a brief recess, the review board found Montwheeler was “no longer affected by a qualifying mental disease or defect,” which meant the state was legally required to discharge him. Offenders who are discharged from the state hospital, even those, like Montwheeler, released before the completion of their full term, are not diverted into penitentiaries. They are set free without additional oversight or guaranteed access to state mental health care.

The board’s chair, Kate Lieber, a Portland-based attorney, was clearly upset. “I don’t even know where to start,” she said. While maintaining a lie for 20 years, she noted, Montwheeler had avoided prison, lived rent-free, and received expensive care from trained professionals. “I mean, that is troubling on all sorts of levels,” Lieber said. “I’m assuming somebody in the system might do a forensic look at this and figure out what the hell happened. But as of now, you’re discharged.” Before Montwheeler walked out the door, she added, “My hope is that you’ll do the right thing. I am sincerely worried that you won’t.”

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