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By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — A 21-year-old woman accused in the stabbing death of a 24-year-old man in the Town of Spring Brook in March of this year has changed her plea to “not guilty” and “not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.”
Ezra J. McCandless appeared with her attorney, Aaron Nelson, before Judge James Peterson in Dunn County Circuit Court November 7 to change her plea.
When Judge Peterson asked McCandless if it was correct she wanted to change her plea, McCandless answered “yes” in a quiet voice.
The prosecution has filed a motion asking the court to order the release of McCandless’s mental health records, said Richard Dufour, the state Assistant Attorney General who is trying the case.
Nelson has filed a motion with the court to suppress statements made by McCandless.
Judge Peterson could make a ruling on the release of the mental health records during the same hearing when he rules on the motion to suppress the defendant’s statements, Dufour said.
An hour has been set for the December 3 court hearing for the decision on Nelson’s motion, Judge Peterson noted, and then instructed the court clerk to schedule the December 3 hearing for two hours.
Nelson also expressed concern Judge Peterson would order a psychiatric exam of McCandless before the December 3 hearing and that the state also would hire someone to do a psychiatric exam before December 3.
Judge Peterson said it was his concern if the process were started after December 3 for a court-ordered mental health exam, then the time-frame until the trial scheduled next spring would become an issue.
The judge scheduled another court hearing for November 20 for arguments and a decision on issues related to motions filed by Nelson.
Nelson said he also was seeking clarification on Dufour’s motion for release of McCandless’s mental health records and said it was not clear to him if it was a request for McCandless to sign a release or if he was being asked, as her attorney, to provide the records.
The motion is a request for the court to order the release of McCandless’s records and not a request for McCandless to sign a release, Dufour said.
Judge Peterson assured Nelson no evaluations of McCandless would take place until after the November 20 hearing.
Nelson wondered if Judge Peterson was planning to appoint an expert to conduct an evaluation.
When Judge Peterson replied, “yes,” Nelson then wondered if the judge would be willing to consider suggestions from the defense and the prosecution.
Either side could make suggestions within the next week, Judge Peterson said.
Nelson said if he knew who the court were “leaning toward,” he could then say whether he objected.
Judge Peterson said he had not yet decided if one or more than one expert would be hired to do the evaluation and that he had to also consider the resources available and the expense.
The state is likely to hire someone as well to do an evaluation, Dufour said.
Judge Peterson said he would like to hire a psychiatrist from the Mendota Mental Health Institute, and Nelson said he had no objection.
Judge Peterson asked Nelson and Dufour to each submit three names of mental health experts to the court within the next week.
The law says the court may appoint one or more, and in this case, there should be more than one, Judge Peterson said, adding that he expected the defense would hire a mental health expert, the court would appoint one and that the state would hire one.
Section 971.15 of the Wisconsin Statutes defines not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, which is also referred to as “NGI.”
A defendant can be considered NGI if the defendant lacks the capacity to understand his or her conduct was wrong and is so ill, he or she cannot understand what has been done is illegal.
A defendant also can be considered NGI if the person is so ill, he or she cannot control his or her actions.
In the case of a trial where a defendant has pleaded NGI, the prosecution must prove the person is guilty of the crime, and it is then up to the defendant to convince the jury that he or she is not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
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.
Bail was set for McCandless at $250,000 cash on March 29.
At the time of the November 7 hearing, McCandless remained in custody at the Dunn County jail.