Mental Health Justice Under Scrutiny

A year-long project will explore Oregon’s approach to mental illness and crime.

Why was a dangerous person freed from custody to murder again?

The question first arose when – according to prosecutors -- Anthony Montwheeler killed two people and severely injured a third near Vale, Oregon. Montwheeler had been released from state psychiatric custody four weeks earlier, after convincing doctors that he faked mental illness 20 years earlier, the Malheur Enterprise reported last year.

In a new report, the newspaper is asking the question again, this time about Charles Longjaw. He is charged with murdering a man in Portland a little more than a year after being freed by Oregon’s Psychiatric Security Review Board. The Board had released Longjaw from life-long custody in 2015, because doctors said his mental illness arose from his abuse of alcohol and drugs, a condition that no longer qualifies for an insanity plea.

Although public safety is the board’s mission, “Longjaw and Montwheeler were freed because the state board itself is handcuffed by laws that haven’t been modified despite such high-profile cases,” wrote reporter Jayme Fraser in her Wednesday story in the Malheur Enterprise.

In fact, as the Enterprise lays out, an earlier ruling on another case by the Oregon Supreme Court actually seemed to require that Longjaw be freed, despite the danger known to all who made the decision. The law also seemed to require that Montwheeler be freed, because a new assessment determined he was not insane.

The story is the first in a yearlong project to examine more closely why the state’s judicial and mental health systems released people they viewed as a clear danger to the public.

“One of the questions we have, if the board says they’re not responsible for looking at system as a whole and determining if it is effective, then who is responsible?” Fraser said. “Who is looking out for the best interests of the public and judging if the Oregon model works? If they are simply following the law as written, who has the responsibility to make sure the law as written works.”

There is strong local interest in those questions, she says, because many in their community were devastated by the deaths of the people Montwheeler is accused of killing, Annita Harmon and David Bates. Fraser’s work also brings a national spotlight to the questions and answers, through a partnership with ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative nonprofit newsroom.

The Malheur Enterprise is one of seven newsrooms selected for an inaugural ProPublica Local Reporting Network. The year long initiative kicked off in January. ProPublica reimburses a local reporter’s salary and offers other support and guidance on data analysis, research, editing, social media engagement, photography and video.

“Local newspapers have a strong tradition of accountability and investigative journalism,” Fraser says. “That has become tougher because of fiscal realities. Where this [project] feels new, is that it is taking the good work of local reporters and bringing it to a national audience.

“Advocates for mental health tout Oregon as one of best states, because Oregon puts an emphasis on reintegrating into the community as soon as possible,” Fraser told The Lund Report. “But Oregon has never analyzed their discharges to see if that same model is as good at maintaining public safety. The public has no way of knowing.

“My work this year is to test that hypothesis,” Fraser says. “Does the Oregon system work as state officials intend it to? And are there ways to do a better job protecting public safety without harming civil rights of people with mental illness?”

The project will explore “how often someone found criminally insane leaves state supervision and returns to crime, why the state released people in the face of repeated warnings they were dangerous, and what changes might better protect the public without sacrificing the rights of those with mental illness or disabilities,” according to the story. The first report was published online simultaneously on the Oregonian’s OregonLive site and ProPublica.

The answers are likely to quickly become more complicated.

The first article uses Longjaw’s story to introduce how the Oregon system works and how it’s changed over the last 30 years.

For this story, Fraser ploughed through 1,700 pages detailing Longjaw’s life, distilling his abuse and abandonment as a child and then his attacks on other people, including the 1986 murder that put him under state psychiatric custody and violence he committed during supervised community release programs. “I’d have to give myself a break in the middle of the reading,” she said, “but I was keeping in mind that these were the same documents that the Board read and used to make their decisions.”

Outrage might be a natural reaction for any number of reasons, from the risk to public safety to the criminalization of addiction to the possible gaming of the insanity plea. Fraser asks readers to look beyond the outcomes and consider what they think is the right balance between civil rights for people with mental illness and public safety.

“’Solutions journalism’ may be a buzzword these days, but it’s what local communities have always done,” she said. “Small papers have traditionally tapped into decisions the community is making and given their neighbors information to make those decisions. This is no different. We need to take the next step and think about what the solutions should be. If anyone thinks of a good one, let us know.”

On the Montwheeler stories, opinions about the fate of people found guilty except for insanity in violent crimes have ranged from sympathetic calls for better community mental health services to calls for them to be locked away forever or given the death penalty, Fraser wrote in an email. “Others have a gut feeling the state can do better but aren't sure exactly what would work.”

The Bend Bulletin weighed in with a partial fix in an editorial the next day. The newspaper urged lawmakers to close the loophole for people who were found guilty except for insanity, before Oregon courts effectively changed the law, excluding personality disorders, voluntary substance-related intoxication or sexual conduct disorders.

Fraser has built a database using 10 years of discharge orders from the board, totaling about 600 people. She is working her way through criminal background checks on each of them. The records were obtained through state public records law, after the newspaper won a fight their public status in reporting about Montwheeler, as covered by The Lund Report. More than 500 people are currently under the board’s jurisdiction, with one-third of them housed at the state hospital.

“We try to make it clear that the majority of people with mental illness are not violent,” Fraser told the Lund Report. In fact, “they’re more likely to be victims of violence than violent criminals themselves. But it doesn't mean we shouldn’t be looking at the narrow pool of people who are both violent and mentally ill.”

In March, Longjaw was convicted of the murder he committed and sentenced to life in prison without eligibility for parole. He did not use the insanity defense. Montwheeler is awaiting trial and has said he intends to rely on the insanity defense again.