McCandless tells judge she is competent to stand trial for Spring Brook homicide

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE  — Ezra J. McCandless, the 20-year-old Stanley woman accused in the stabbing death of Alexander Woodworth, 24, in the Town of Spring Brook in March, has told a Dunn County judge she is competent to stand trial.

McCandless appeared with her attorney, Aaron Nelson, before Dunn County Circuit Court Judge James Peterson May 22 in what originally had been scheduled as a competency hearing.

Judge Peterson ordered the competency evaluation for McCandless following a preliminary hearing in Dunn County Circuit Court April 25.

At the May 22 hearing, Judge Peterson said he had received a report from Dr. Donna Minter, who had “attempted” to conduct a competency evaluation.

Judge Peterson said he was proposing to seal the report from the public and asked Nelson if he and his client had any objection to the court accepting the report.

McCandless has given her permission to accept the report and does not object to proceeding with the competency hearing, Nelson said, citing Wisconsin statute 971.14(4)(b): “At the commencement of the hearing, the judge shall ask the defendant whether he or she claims to be competent or incompetent. If the defendant stands mute or claims to be incompetent, the defendant shall be found incompetent unless the state proves by the greater weight of the credible evidence that the defendant is competent. If the defendant claims to be competent, the defendant shall be found competent unless the state proves by evidence that is clear and convincing that the defendant is incompetent.”

“Ask her the question,” Nelson said.

Dunn County District Attorney Andrea Nodolf told the court state Assistant Attorney General Richard Dufour, who appeared at the hearing by speaker phone, would respond for the prosecution as to whether there was any objection to proceeding on the issue of competency.

The report does not come to a conclusion about McCandless’s competency, Dufour said.

Based on McCandless’s ability to listen to advice from her attorney and to take the advice of her attorney, however, Dufour said he believed McCandless is competent to assist in her defense and to stand trial.

Dufour also said he had no objection to the court accepting the report and to sealing the report from the view of the public.

When Judge Peterson asked McCandless a series of questions, she answered “yes” in a clear, strong voice.

The questions focused on whether McCandless understood the charges against her, does she believe she has the ability to assist her attorney in her own defense and does she believe she has the mental capacity to proceed.

Given the responses from McCandless, Judge Peterson declared her competent, accepted the report from Dr. Minter and sealed the report from the view of the public.

Advice

Although he was reluctant to say very much about Dr. Minter’s report, Judge Peterson was willing to say McCandless followed the advice and the instructions from her attorney during Dr. Minter’s attempt to determine competency.

Dr. Minter was unable to obtain certain kinds of information because McCandless was following what her counsel had told her, Judge Peterson said.

Dr. Minter included her observations of McCandless in the report, along with observations from the jail, and there is nothing in the report stating McCandless lacks an understanding of the proceedings, he said.

Judge Peterson said he had ordered the competency evaluation based on questions and comments from McCandless’s defense counsel during the preliminary hearing.

Nelson, as an officer of the court and who is certified to handle cases such as this, has an obligation to notify the court if he doubts the competency of his client, Judge Peterson said.

Nelson has retained an independent expert to evaluate McCandless’s competency, and if competency is raised, Nelson will advise the court, he said.

Nelson told the court that he had not hired an expert to evaluate McCandless although Dr. Minter’s report implied that he had.

Judge Peterson noted while he had declared McCandless competent to proceed, the issue of competency can be raised at any time.

Not guilty

Judge Peterson asked if McCandless was ready to proceed with an arraignment hearing and to enter a plea.

After conferring at the bench with Judge Peterson and District Attorney Nodolf, Nelson said his client was ready to enter a plea to the Class A felony of first degree intentional homicide.

McCandless pleaded not guilty to the charge of murdering Alexander Woodworth.

First-degree intentional homicide carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Woodworth

The body of Alexander Woodworth was found in a car identified as belonging to McCandless in the Town of Spring Brook March 23.

According to the preliminary autopsy report, Woodworth had been stabbed 16 times.

At the April 25 hearing, when asked about releasing Woodworth’s body to his family, Nelson said he did not know if he was going to ask for an independent autopsy and objected to the release of the body.

At the May 22 hearing, Judge Peterson asked if Nelson had yet made a decision about requesting an independent autopsy.

Nelson told the court he had not yet made the decision.

The final autopsy report was waiting on the table in the courtroom when he arrived, Nelson said, and he had not yet had a chance to read it and discuss it with his client.

Judge Peterson asked how much time Nelson thought he would need to make a decision.

The final autopsy report had been received the night before, Dufour said.

A flash drive previously had been given to Nelson with the autopsy photographs, and the remainder of the evidence in the district attorney’s possession (known as “discovery”) would be provided to Nelson in a day or two, Dufour said.

Autopsy photographs are meaningless without a report to go with them, Nelson said.

Nelson went on to say August 1, another 60 days, would be a sufficient amount of time for him to make a decision about whether to request an independent autopsy.

The case has gone 60 days without any reports from the district attorney’s office, so another 60 days to review the information would be appropriate, Nelson said.

District Attorney Nodolf objected to waiting another 60 days before Woodworth’s body could be released.

The preliminary autopsy report and photographs had been provided to Nelson, and the final autopsy report with toxicology results had been received last night, she said.

The initial information had been provided to Nelson weeks ago, and it is “not appropriate” for the family to wait longer, Nodolf said.

Woodworth’s body has already decomposed to a certain point, and the more time that goes by, the harder it would be to conduct an independent autopsy, she said.

Waiting another 60 days would be “detrimental” to the victim’s family, Nodolf said, asking for “30 days at the most.”

Nelson said he could not make a decision in 30 days.

The pictures are “meaningless” without the conclusions in the autopsy report, Nelson reiterated, and wondered how he could be expected to make a decision when he does not know how long it will take to review the information.

Nelson said he was not placing blame and that he would give the state the benefit of the doubt.

Nelson went on to say he was “trying to be professional” and “give due consideration” to the evidence by saying he needed 60 days to review the information, and if the court insisted on a shorter time period, then he would ask for an independent autopsy.

If Nelson was put into the position of asking for an independent autopsy, then in the long run, by the time the second autopsy was performed and the final report issued, the time period would be far longer than the 60 days he was asking for now, Nelson said.

Status

Judge Peterson said he would schedule a status conference in 30 days, and if by that time Nelson has a chance to review the information, perhaps he would know by then if he planned to ask for an independent autopsy.

Judge Peterson said he understood Nelson’s duty to his client but asked him to also be mindful of Woodworth’s family.

In the meantime, Nelson can also be reviewing the discovery and deciding if there are any motions he wishes to file with the court, Judge Peterson said.

A 30-minute status conference in the McCandless case is scheduled for July 9 in Dunn County Circuit Court at 8 a.m.

Bail was set at $250,000 cash during a court hearing March 28.

McCandless remained in custody at the Dunn County Jail at the time of May 22 court hearing. 

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