This article was produced in partnership with the Malheur Enterprise, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
VALE, Ore. — Oregon officials last year fought to keep the public away from records about a man accused of two murders following his early release from state mental treatment.
They lost, and those public records raised troubling questions about the state’s handling of Anthony W. Montwheeler, who asserted he had been faking a mental illness for 20 years to avoid prison.
Montwheeler, now 50, had told officials he was tired of living off the dole and in state institutions and wanted to be freed. When doctors said they could find no signs of mental illness, Montwheeler won his bid.
Three weeks later, he stabbed to death an ex-wife and killed an Oregon man in a violent crash during a police pursuit.
Now, the state is once again trying to shield crucial records regarding Montwheeler. This time, the court system is refusing to release a key document assessing whether Montwheeler is competent to stand trial for the murders.
Court administrators acted to keep the document secret despite internal warnings that such records weren’t “legally confidential.”
When the secrecy was challenged by the Malheur Enterprise, agency officials privately approached a state judge and obtained a court order blocking the report from public view.
The move was the latest instance of Oregon officials citing Montwheeler’s privacy to justify keeping government documents confidential.
Last year, the Oregon State Hospital and the state Psychiatric Security Review Board attempted to block public access to records on Montwheeler’s treatment and their decision to release him. The security review board ultimately was forced to release the records it held from both agencies after the state attorney general intervened.
Then, last month, state court administrators treated another document as confidential — a deputy’s request to place Montwheeler in restraints for a court appearance. The state subsequently disclosed the request after the Enterprise questioned the secrecy, but has yet to explain why the one-page document was confidential in the first place.
The Enterprise has teamed up with ProPublica to investigate Oregon’s system for handling the criminally insane as part of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. The Oregonian/OregonLive of Portland recently joined the project.
Montwheeler’s case has drawn intense interest because he had been judged guilty except for insanity in a 1996 kidnapping. State officials released him in December 2016 after agreeing that he had been faking his mental illness.
The current effort to prosecute him for the January 2017 murders has been stalled because of questions about his mental state. Despite being under indictment for more than a year, he has yet to enter a plea. A hearing scheduled for June to consider his fitness for trial recently was pushed to September, meaning Montwheeler remains in a county jail.
His attorney, David Falls of West Linn, has said Montwheeler may assert an insanity defense against the new charges. A state judge during a hearing last fall said she was disturbed by Montwheeler’s conduct while in jail and ordered him evaluated. The Oregon State Hospital, where he had spent years in his earlier case, was tasked with determining whether he was mentally fit for trial.
On Jan. 11, the Malheur County Circuit Court received the 37-page evaluation. Such case files typically are open to the public. In this instance, officials with the Oregon Judicial Department said that while they weren’t prohibited by law from releasing the report, their concerns about privacy and federal law led them to keep the report off limits.
Staffers in the office of State Court Administrator Nancy Cozine had previously questioned the secrecy applied to reports about fitness to stand trial, according to documents obtained by the Enterprise through a public records request.
“We have reflexively treated these documents as confidential without any sort of reasoned analysis and that very well may be in error,” Josh Nasbe, counsel in the state court administrator’s office, wrote in a June 14, 2016, email. He wrote in a second email that “I understand the consensus to be that these documents are not legally confidential.”
When releasing those records, an agency lawyer acknowledged in an email that those documents “do not necessarily clearly articulate the full reason of how psychological reports became confidential.”
After Marilee Aldred, administrator of the Malheur County Circuit Court, declined the newspaper’s request to release the evaluation, the Enterprise petitioned Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to order that it be disclosed to the public.
Officials didn’t wait to see how Rosenblum would rule on whether the public was entitled to see the report. Instead, Aldred asked the state judge handling Montwheeler’s criminal case to consider the newspaper’s request.
On Feb. 6, Judge Thomas Ryan said in an order that the evaluation should be held confidential. The judge said releasing the report “would constitute an unreasonable invasion of privacy” and “nothing before the court establishes that the public interest requires disclosure.”
It remains confidential to this date.