Murder defendant, his attorneys split on his competency to stand trial

  • Sat Sep 18th, 2010 7:52pm
  • News

By Diana Hefley Herald Writer

EVERETT — State doctors say that a mentally ill man who spent decades locked up at Western State Hospital is competent to stand trial in the July stabbing death of his Everett landlady.

Defense attorneys for Steven Well are expected to challenge the doctors’ findings at a hearing scheduled for Oct. 1. The lawyers also may have Well evaluated by other doctors. A judge then will determine if Well is able to assist in his own defense.

Well is accused of fatally stabbing Judith Garcia, 64, inside the foyer of the Edison Apartments on Colby Avenue. Prosecutors say Well, 59, stabbed the Everett grandmother at least two dozen times. Garcia was the landlady at the Edison, where Well had lived for a few years. Well is charged with second-degree murder for the July 18 slaying.

Well has a 30-year history of documented mental illness. He has been diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia. After his arrest, a judge in August ordered Well to undergo a mental health evaluation at Western State Hospital in Lakewood.

Doctors there reported that Well understands the charge against him and is able to communicate with his attorneys. They also wrote that Well wasn’t showing any “overt symptoms of a major mental illness.”

At the hospital he had been prescribed antipsychotic medication used to treat symptoms of schizophrenia.

“He appears to have no symptoms that interfere in any significant manner with his ability to understand his charges or the court procedures,” the evaluator wrote.

Well appeared briefly Monday in Snohomish County Superior Court for a competency hearing. His attorneys weren’t there. Instead, one of their colleagues asked that a contested hearing be set for next month.

Well objected to his attorneys’ request, according to a transcript of Monday’s hearing.

“I had Western Hospital go through me. They had me there for two weeks. They evaluated. They found out I was competent,” Well said. “Now these two, these yo-yos, my attorneys, are going behind my back and saying I’m incompetent. It’s absurd. I’ll object to it. I will do anything I can to stop the proceeding.”

Wells’ attorney, public defender Kathleen Kyle, could not be reached for comment.

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Ed Stemler told the judge he was ready to enter a competency order and move forward with the case. He called the state’s evaluation “straightforward.”

Superior Court Judge Larry McKeeman said he was going to give Well’s attorneys a chance to challenge the evaluation. He ordered a new hearing.

Well again complained about his attorneys.

“I mean, I’m not getting anything substantial here as far as my defense, and I’ve really had it up to my eyeballs,” he said.

Well seemed appeased after McKeeman told him that the hearing would be held in court, not at Western State Hospital.

“OK. That’s fine. That’s what I want to do. We’ll have it here on the 1st,” Well said.

In the weeks leading up to Well’s arrest, he appeared agitated, his father, Bob Well, said. He speculated that his son was not taking his medications.

If Well is found competent to stand trial, defense attorneys can still pursue an insanity defense. They would have to prove that Well, as a result of a mental defect or disease, was unable to understand what he was doing and was incapable of distinguishing right from wrong at the time of the offense.

Well spent much of 20 years at Western State Hospital after he was found not guilty by reason of insanity for a 1980 attack on his landlady at the time. She survived that knife attack. He was released for a time to a group home, but was sent back after attacking a housemate with a hammer in 1988.

Well waged a legal battle against his confinement that state officials said became an impediment to his treatment, court papers show. He was released from the mental hospital in 2001 when the state Court of Appeals found legal flaws in the way a hearing was conducted roughly two decades earlier. That was when Well was found not guilty by reason of insanity for the 1980 attack.

Well’s legal victory put prosecutors in the difficult position of trying to prove a case from long ago.

Under an agreement reached in 2004, Well was granted a conditional release with a number of restrictions, including requirements to take his medication, attend therapy sessions and find stable housing.

He was living under those conditions when Garcia was attacked.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.