Murder suspect found mentally competent to proceed

A Clackamas County judge ruled last week that Erik Meiser, accused of murdering a Lake Oswego man with a knife and machete, is mentally fit for trial, allowing the case to move forward.

After a two-day hearing, Judge Eve Miller said June 5 that proceedings were no longer suspended, as prosecutors had met their burden of proof in showing Meiser understands how the court system functions, will cooperate with his attorneys and is able to consider the consequences of potential defense strategies.

While Meiser “clearly” suffers from serious mental illness, most likely delusional disorder, he also appears willing to work with his lawyers, Miller said. Erik Meiser

“Does that mean there will be a consensus reached by Mr. Meiser and his attorneys? Only time will tell,” she said. “Right here, right now, it is clear to the court, at least by a preponderance of the evidence, Mr. Meiser can aid and assist and is fit to proceed.”

Meiser, 38, is accused of attacking Fritz Hayes, 57, as Hayes and his wife returned to their Atwater Road home after a morning walk Sept. 17. Described as a transient by law enforcement officials, Meiser didn’t know the couple. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

He was treated at the Oregon State Hospital from early January to mid-March after being found unable to aid and assist in his defense. Doctors said he was delusional, believing he was the victim of “skullduggery” and fearing that conspirators were trying to turn one of his two children into a cannibal. State law requires defendants to be mentally fit for trial.

Last week, doctors said antipsychotic medication appeared to have brought Meiser’s symptoms under control.

Dr. Christopher Lockey, Oregon Health & Science University chief psychiatrist at the Oregon State Hospital, evaluated Meiser’s mental health. He thinks Meiser understands legal proceedings and is able to make rational decisions.

“What it comes down to is whether or not Mr. Meiser can make reasonable choices in his defense,” Lockey said in court. “It was clear to me that he could.”

That doesn’t mean Meiser isn’t suffering from some symptoms of mental illness.

“Many people in the United States have mental illnesses yet they’re still able to make rational choices,” Lockey said.

Dr. Kimberly McCollum, a psychologist at the state hospital, said Meiser still believes he was the victim of harassment by unknown conspirators.

“He believes people made threats toward him and they had a desire to harm his wife, to harm his children,” she said.

But those ideas shifted during his time in the hospital, she said. McCollum noted that Meiser expressed interest in exploring a guilty-except-for-insanity defense after considering whether staying at the hospital might allow him to have more contact with his family than if he ends up in prison.

“Mr. Meiser talked about not wanting to go to prison,” she said. “He appeared to be thinking out his options.”

When they first met at the county jail in December, recalled Dr. Brian Daly, a psychiatrist at the state hospital, Meiser’s “delusions were very prominent.”

However, Daly said, “He began to show insight as time went on.”

At the hospital, Meiser was kept in a padded room with only a mattress for furniture. He was observed pretty much 24 hours a day, and much of his contact with doctors and other staff members happened through a slot in a door or through the monitoring window. He had some face-to-face contact with doctors during treatment meetings. He occasionally had violent outbursts after interacting with medical staff, doctors said.

He passed the time in part by reading newspapers and magazines and watching movies, and he was able to play video games near the end of his stay.

Henry Miller, a clinical psychologist hired by the defense team, also evaluated Meiser. He said Meiser may still show signs of delusional thinking, such as a reference he made to the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Meiser suggested the accused shooter was “another victim of skullduggery,” Miller said. “He’s presenting it as new evidence of his belief.”

Miller noted that in addition to delusions about torment and persecution, Meiser has “represented hearing” things, including “you have to kill somebody to get out.”

And it’s unclear whether Meiser would follow through on pursuing a guilty-but-insane defense, Miller said, in part because he doesn’t believe he’s crazy.

Defense attorney Jenny Cooke said she worries about her client’s ability to make rational decisions.

“He has delusions about the nature of reality,” she told the judge. “When we say there’s Choice A and Choice B, he says, ‘But C is so obviously the best answer.’ And there is no C.”

Chris Owen, senior deputy district attorney, said there’s an eyewitness, a video of Meiser confessing and forensic evidence linking him to the crime, and he thinks Meiser understands what that means for his case.

“His assessments of the realities of one thing happening over another are quite grounded,” Owen said.

And while Meiser doesn’t believe he’s mentally ill, he has shown he’s willing to consider whether a guilty-except-for-insanity defense is in his best interest.

“Obviously Mr. Meiser is never going to be the perfect client,” Owen said. “Just because he presents some challenges and extra time does not put him ... at the level he is not able to aid and assist.”

Miller acknowledged that Meiser chose to quit taking his medication the week before but said he still “behaved in a very appropriate fashion” during the hearing. Meiser was present in the courtroom but didn’t speak. Five sheriff’s deputies accompanied him in the courtroom.

“We may be back here again,” Miller said. “Hopefully everything is going to proceed in a normal fashion.”

Meiser’s trial is scheduled for June 2014.

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