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By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — A Dunn County judge has ordered the mental health medical records of the woman suspected in a Spring Brook homicide be released to mental health experts.
Judge James Peterson ordered the mental health records to be released to mental health professionals for an evaluation of Ezra J. McCandless at a hearing in Dunn County Circuit Court November 20.
McCandless is accused of stabbing Alexander Woodworth to death to last March.
Woodworth’s body 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.
McCandless has pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect (also known as NGI).
The mental health records are not to go beyond the legal teams for the prosecution and the defense, Judge Peterson said.
The proposed order presented by Aaron Nelson, McCandless’s defense attorney, is broader than state statute, said Richard Dufour, the state assistant attorney general who is prosecuting the case.
Dufour said he would not give the reports of the mental health experts to Woodworth’s family members but that he did want to advise them, as part of their victims’ rights, of the general evaluation as to whether McCandless does or does not meet the criteria for NGI.
The victims’ rights are not affected by McCandless’s plea or by any mental health evaluations, Nelson said.
Dufour said he was asking the court to allow him to advise the victims whether the evaluation of McCandless does or does not meet the criteria of NGI.
The victims have a right to know, he said.
There is no need for the victims to know until Phase 2 of the trial, Nelson said.
The first phase of a trial would involve the prosecution proving McCandless had been responsible for Woodworth’s death. The second phase of a trial would involve persuading a jury that McCandless was not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
A jury will decide if McCandless meets the criteria for NGI. The “experts opine” but the “court decides,” Nelson said.
Section 971.15 of the Wisconsin Statutes defines not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
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.
Dufour wants to consult with the victims without going into specific details whether an expert believes McCandless meets the criteria, Judge Peterson said.
The “danger” is a leak to the press, he said.
If the information were included in a story before the trial, that would be a “big problem,” Judge Peterson said.
McCandless must understand that anything she says to examiners will not be disseminated in any way and will remain sealed, he said.
Discussing the case with the victims is reasonable for the prosecution, but publishing the statements would be prohibited, Judge Peterson said.
On the other hand, the press should be kept informed of the process, in general terms and not specifics, of how the law works and without providing specifics about the reports of mental health experts or mental health records, the judge said.
McCandless has a right to a fair trial, and the press does not need to know anything, Nelson said.
Judge Peterson said he agreed that no details or specifics of the case should be given to the press, but that the press does have a right to ask questions in general about how the law works.
“The press represents the public,” Judge Peterson said.
Regarding the prosecution’s general discussion with the victims, Judge Peterson said he wanted more time to review state statutes.
The victims could be put under a court order to not disclose any information to the public, he said.
Nelson also wanted to know if he would be informed of dates for mental health evaluations by court-appointed experts or state-appointed experts so he could review McCandless’s rights with her.
Judge Peterson said the evaluations should be coordinated with Nelson.
The reports will be sealed and confidential through the guilt phase of the trial, but the reports will not be confidential in the next phase, he said.
Judge Peterson ordered the release of McCandless’s medical records to mental health experts who will be doing an evaluation.
Another court hearing is scheduled December 3 for Judge Peterson to give an oral ruling on whether statements made by McCandless in the days after Woodworth’s body was discovered should be suppressed.
The written reports by mental health experts will be due February 1, 2019.
Bail was set for McCandless at $250,000 cash on March 29.
At the time of the November 20 hearing, McCandless remained in custody at the Dunn County jail.