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State: Woman wasn't insane; had drug-induced psychosis

Mail Tribune - 10/24/2017

Oct. 24--A woman who stabbed a man in Medford and was judged guilty except for insanity, was released from state psychiatric custody after officials determined she was suffering from drug-induced psychosis -- not mental illness.

Heather Marie Everman was ordered released from the Oregon State Hospital'sJunction City campus in September 2016, according to an Order of Discharge document obtained by the Mail Tribune.

Since her release, she has continued to run afoul of the law for possessing methamphetamine, fighting with law enforcement personnel, trespassing and stealing, court records show.

Everman has also been found mentally unfit to aid and assist in her own defense in the new cases -- raising questions about her actual mental state, her drug use and the interrelationship between the two.

Drug-induced psychosis is not a legal defense for criminal actions because the defendant chose to take drugs. The situation is similar to driving under the influence of intoxicants, in which drivers face legal consequences for their actions.

Methamphetamine use can produce hallucinations and delusions, mimicking the symptoms of serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia.

For those with mental illness, defendants who are found guilty except for insanity can be sentenced to the custody of the state Psychiatric Security Review Board for mental health treatment at a state mental hospital or lower level of care.

Everman, then 25, was suffering from paranoid delusions and auditory hallucinations when she stabbed Algie Paul Burdis, then 24, in the lower back for no apparent reason in Medford'sPear Blossom Park in October 2014, according to court testimony.

Burdis survived.

Soon after the stabbing, Dennis McNamara, a licensed clinical social worker with Jackson County Mental Health, visited Everman in jail. He said at that time she was unable to aid in her own defense, and suffered from a serious mental disorder.

"While in jail she remained in separation due to her being uncooperative, assaultive with deputies, unpredictable, and not eating," McNamara wrote in a letter to Everman's defense attorney. "She spends a good deal of her time standing at her door blankly staring out."

Everman was taken to the Oregon State Hospital for mental health treatment, then returned to Jackson County after her mental state improved.

In February 2015, Jackson County Circuit Judge David Hoppe found her guilty of second-degree assault except for insanity. He sentenced her to spend up to 10 years under the supervision of the state Psychiatric Security Review Board.

In court, Everman showed remarkable improvement. She was able to politely answer questions and was well groomed.

Her court-appointed defense attorney, John Hamilton, said Everman was like a different person after she received treatment, compared to when she was in the throes of her delusional state.

"This is a tragedy of our current mental health system," Hamilton said during the February 2015 hearing, noting it took the stabbing and Everman's entry into the criminal justice system for her to get the mental health treatment she needed.

He said the stabbing likely would never have happened if Everman had received medication and treatment earlier.

Hoppe told Everman her situation was tragic, but she still represented a substantial danger to others and needed to be committed to the state hospital.

Everman was sent to the Oregon State Hospital'sJunction City campus.

In September 2016, Psychiatric Security Review Board members decided the state's attorney had not met the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that Everman continued to be affected by a mental disease or defect, according to the state Order of Discharge document.

Dr. Priscilla Park provided expert testimony that Everman instead "suffers solely from amphetamine induced psychotic disorder," according to the Order of Discharge.

The board concluded Everman had to be discharged from the jurisdiction of the Psychiatric Security Review Board, the document said.

The Junction City treatment team requested the September 2016 hearing because Everman was not exhibiting symptoms of mental illness while she lived there, said Psychiatric Security Review Board Executive Director Juliet Britton.

The board determined she did not have a mental illness and that her psychosis was solely due to drugs, Britton said.

Britton said substance-induced psychosis can be very difficult to determine. A correct diagnosis often requires a prolonged period of sobriety and observation by staff.

"I'm constantly talking with attorneys around the state that you have to vet these issues," Britton said. "You have to see what they look like in custody without drugs and alcohol. Often there is substance abuse with mental illness. Co-occurring disorders are very common. These can be very, very difficult cases."

A few years ago, Jackson County Senior Deputy District Attorney Laura Cromwell was assigned by District Attorney Beth Heckert to be the main attorney in the office handling mental health and insanity cases.

Cromwell said insanity cases are specialized, so it makes sense to have someone from the District Attorney's Office focused on mental health issues.

Cromwell said it can be difficult to determine why a defendant makes a big improvement after being jailed and sent to the Oregon State Hospital for treatment, stabilization and evaluation. It could be the defendant is responding well to mental health medication, or the effects of psychosis-inducing drugs could be wearing off.

Whenever a defense attorney plans an insanity defense, Cromwell said she watches out for reports of methamphetamine use in the defendant's history.

"High use of meth is a big red flag," Cromwell said.

Further complicating the issue, long-term meth use can lead to long-lasting and even permanent brain changes, she noted.

In several other meth-psychosis cases, the District Attorney's Office has fought against insanity defenses.

In July 2016, Shad Gary Dunbar was sentenced to a decade in prison after he shot at newspaper carriers while in the throes of a meth-fueled paranoid delusion. After binging on meth for at least seven days, Dunbar was convinced the carriers had kidnapped his father.

Dunbar's defense attorney had considered an insanity defense before accepting a plea agreement with prosecutors.

On Oct. 3 of this year, Wade Eugene Phillips accepted a plea agreement and was sentenced to 15 years and eight months in prison for shooting and killing his wife and firing shots at children.

The defense argued mental illness contributed to the crime, while Heckert, who handled the case, said meth-induced paranoia led to the killing.

Speaking Oct. 3, Heckert said Phillips was sent to the Oregon State Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, but was found not to be insane.

If he had been successful in pursuing a guilty-except-for-insanity defense, he could have been sent to an Oregon psychiatric hospital for treatment and eventual release, rather than receiving a prison sentence, she said.

Heckert said meth-induced paranoia and delusions wane after a person stops using the drug. She said Phillips could have gotten out of psychiatric custody fairly quickly.

"My concern is that there wouldn't have been much of a consequence," she said. "When people are not using, the mental illness clears up."

Cromwell said the District Attorney's Office is on the lookout for cases in which a defendant appears to be mentally ill but is actually suffering the mental effects of drug use. Unlike the mentally ill, a drug user who is mistakenly sentenced to the Oregon State Hospital could be released into a community with no requirement for ongoing supervision.

"The risk is they'll walk off scot-free," Cromwell said.

Meanwhile, after Everman was released from state psychiatric custody in September 2016, she began racking up criminal charges in Josephine County in December 2016 and January of this year, court records show.

She was found mentally unfit to aid and assist in her own defense in May and was ordered transported to the Oregon State Hospital for treatment.

A July psychological evaluation report is confidential and cannot be accessed by the Mail Tribune.

Everman pleaded guilty to various charges in July and was sentenced to a short period in jail plus probation, court records show.

In September, she allegedly scuffled with law enforcement and was found in possession of a bag of meth. She was charged with methamphetamine possession. The case is pending, court records show.

-- Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

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(c)2017 the Mail Tribune (Medford, Ore.)

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