Judge Eve Miller ruled late afternoon Wednesday that the suspect in a violent Lake Oswego murder is now fit to stand trial.
Miller said prosecutors had met their burden of proof in showing that Erik 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 likely suffers from delusional disorder, he also appears willing to work with his attorneys and rationally consider his options, Miller said.
“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.”
A judge was set to decide this week whether Erik Meiser can stand trial on charges related to the murder of Fritz Hayes, killed at his Lake Oswego home in September.
It was unclear what Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Eve Miller would decide when the Review went to press on Wednesday. At that point, attorneys were still questioning a psychiatrist and a psychologist who had reached conflicting conclusions about Meiser’s mental condition. State law requires defendants to be mentally fit for trial, meaning they are able to understand court proceedings and legal decisions and cooperate with their attorneys.
While attorneys agree that Meiser was showing signs of mental illness when he was sent to the Oregon State Hospital in January — he allegedly believes he has been the target of skullduggery and conspiracy — they disagree about whether he’s now able to aid and assist in his defense.
Meiser observed the testimonies with five sheriff’s deputies in the room, but did not speak.
Dr. Christopher Lockey, Oregon Health & Science University chief psychiatrist at Oregon State Hospital, testified on Tuesday that Meiser had voluntarily taken antipsychotic medication as part of his treatment. The goal was to treat psychotic symptoms associated with delusional disorder.
Lockey, who conducted a five-hour interview with Meiser in March and again met with him May 31, said he believes 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. “It was clear to me that he could.”
But 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.
Robert Huggins, one of Meiser’s two attorneys, questioned whether his client should have been diagnosed with schizophrenia rather than delusional disorder.
Lockey responded that Meiser was better able to relate to others and function in daily life than what is typical of schizophrenia.
Meiser was in California Youth Authority until he was 21 years old, but he then held jobs for as long as a year, working at places such as Target, at a restaurant, as a forklift operator — also at a law firm at one point.
Meiser has been able to form relationships with his wife and children, who live in California, as well as his grandmother, who partially raised him, and two aunts, Lockey noted.
Still, Meiser doesn’t believe he has a mental illness, Lockey and Huggins agreed.
Huggins suggested that may present a problem if Meiser were to plead guilty but insane and then take the stand contending he was not mentally ill.
Lockey disagreed. He said a majority of people who have psychotic disorders don’t believe they’re mentally ill.
And, as of 2012, he said, “80 percent of insanity verdicts in Oregon are pled out — so, they’re deals. In many of those cases there was no mental health evaluation done at all. … The fact that Mr. Meiser doesn’t believe he has a mental illness doesn’t preclude an insanity defense.”
Meiser is accused of attacking Hayes, 57, with a knife and a machete as Hayes and his wife returned to their house on Atwater Road from a morning walk Sept. 17, 2012. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office launched a nationwide manhunt after identifying Meiser as its only suspect during a late-evening news conference Sept. 20.
He was arrested a few days later at a Corvallis motel.
A former white supremacist, Meiser has a criminal history stretching back years across 10 states, according to the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office.
He remains a person of interest in a Washington investigation of a stabbing murder that took place in July, according to the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office, although he has not been arrested or charged in connection with that case. He is also accused of slashing a man with a knife or razor on Sept. 8 in Ogden, Utah.
A psychologist hired by the defense team was scheduled to testify in Clackamas County Circuit Court on Wednesday.