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How an Oregon Weekly Forced Release of Key Records in Murder Cases

Oregon sued a tiny newspaper to keep records secret relating to the state’s release of defendants found “guilty except for insanity.” The paper prevailed and is using the records to explore a series of troubling cases.

This article was produced in partnership with the Malheur Enterprise, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Oregon records long considered confidential provide key insights into why the state’s judicial and mental health systems released a convicted killer they viewed as a clear danger to the public.

The more than 1,100 pages of records chronicle the treatment of Charles Longjaw after he was found criminally insane, as well as the state’s decisions to turn him free and his repeat trips to the Oregon State Hospital. Longjaw killed a homeless man on the streets of Portland shortly after he was released from state supervision.

The Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board, the agency with jurisdiction over defendants found guilty except for insanity, provided Longjaw’s medical evaluation reports, risk assessments and doctors’ progress notes in response to a public-records request.

The board did so after giving up on a legal battle with the Malheur Enterprise a year ago over documents involving Anthony W. Montwheeler, another former state hospital patient.

Montwheeler, 50, is facing trial in Malheur County, in rural eastern Oregon, for aggravated murder, assault and kidnapping. He is charged with kidnapping an ex-wife and stabbing her to death outside an Ontario convenience store. He is accused of killing another man and seriously injuring his wife during what prosecutors say was a head-on collision as Montwheeler eluded police. The string of crimes happened on a snowy morning in January 2017.

Three weeks earlier, Montwheeler had been discharged from the state hospital by the state security review board. He contended that he had been faking mental illness for nearly 20 years to avoid prison in an earlier kidnapping case. Doctors at the state psychiatric hospital told the review board there was no evidence that Montwheeler suffered a mental illness that warranted his continued state custody.

Those details were unknown when the Malheur Enterprise, a 109-year-old weekly based in the county seat of Vale, set out to determine why Montwheeler was free. The security review board initially wouldn’t disclose anything. When pressed by the newspaper, the agency released its administrative orders dating back 20 years and an audio recording of the crucial hearing in 2016 at which Montwheeler was discharged.

The security review board then released some of the 200 exhibits it cited in releasing Montwheeler but declined to provide 15 key documents requested by the Enterprise. These included the hospital’s risk assessments, treatment progress notes and release plans. The review board, joined by the Oregon State Hospital, contested a petition the newspaper filed with the state’s attorney general seeking access to the records. The agencies insisted disclosing such records would invade Montwheeler’s privacy and violate laws relating to the confidentiality of medical records.

In March 2017, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s office ordered the review board to turn over the records, finding “clear and convincing evidence” that disclosure was warranted.

"Mr. Montwheeler is accused of committing serious crimes — including killing two people, and seriously injuring a third — a few short weeks after his discharge,” the order said. “Under the circumstances, there is a strong public interest in understanding and evaluating the bases for PSRB’s release decision.”

Instead of turning over the documents, the security review board retained $400-an-hour private attorneys to sue the Enterprise in state court, seeking a court order to keep the records secret. State agencies had used such a tactic only twice before in the prior 30 years. The review board also asked that the Enterprise be ordered to pay the state’s costs in bringing the case.

Unable to afford such a legal fight, the Enterprise launched a $20,000 fundraising campaign to hire lawyers to defend itself.

Two days later, Gov. Kate Brown intervened, directing the review board to drop its case and provide the Montwheeler documents.

“No one requesting public records should be at risk of being sued by a state agency,” she said. “I believe the public is best served by bringing this matter to an end now, rather than after a lengthy and costly litigation.”

The agency complied, and later paid $5,000 to cover the Enterprise’s legal fees.

Since then, the review board has routinely provided its hearing exhibits to the Enterprise and other news organizations, including the records underlying today’s story on Longjaw.

Les Zaitz is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @leszaitz.

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