Autistic teenager declared guilty of murdering mother but unfit to stand trial|
COLUMBUS, Ohio, USA: A judge ruled on September 14 that an autistic teenager is not competent to stand trial in the fatal beating of his doting mother and should remain in the treatment facility where he has been living for several months.
Portage County Common Pleas Judge John Enlow said that Sky Walker, 18, was guilty of murdering his mother in January but should be institutionalised for his protection. All charges against him were dismissed.
At a hearing last week, prosecutors and defence attorneys said they agreed with a mental health evaluation which concluded Walker is unable to help in his defence. His attorneys had argued that Walker, who was kept in a restraint chair and wore a mask to keep him from spitting at deputies, could not carry on a conversation.
To be deemed competent, a defendant would have to understand the charges against him and be able to help in his own defence.
His mother, 60-year-old Gertrude Steuernagel, was found beaten in her home in January and died a week later. A professor at Kent State University, she once wrote publicly about coping with her son's aggressive behaviour.
The judge's ruling is the best possible outcome for Walker, who is unable to grasp the concept of death, said Steuernagel's brother, Bill, who lives in Carolina Shores, N.C.
"What Sky did was horrific," he said. "Yet I firmly believe he does not know what happened."
Bill Steuernagel said his sister's relationship with Walker was akin to spousal abuse, though he had never witnessed his nephew behave violently.
"She loved Sky so much, she did not want to report him to the authorities," he said. "Because she was afraid she'd lose him."
Because Walker no longer has relatives who live in Ohio, family members have been taking turns visiting him at the facility and will continue to do so, Steuernagel said.
Autism is a developmental disability that limits social interaction and communication skills, usually starting before the age of three. Bill Steuernagel said the family wanted to reiterate that Walker's problems with aggression were not typical of all autistic children.
"I don't want this whole thing to throw a black eye on autistic children," he said. "They need our help."
Walker's court-appointed guardian, attorney Deron Boring, said he could not comment on the ruling due to confidentiality laws.
Walker will remain at a state-run centre in Toledo and be evaluated every six months by the court. The centre's nine group homes serve about 160 people, most of whom have severe mental disabilities.
Before a mental evaluation in March, Walker spent about two months in a holding cell in the Portage County jail.
Sheriff's Lt. Gregory Johnson testified last week that deputies found Steuernagel on the floor of her kitchen with massive injuries to her face. A blood trail led through the house to the basement, where deputies found Walker, his bare feet splattered in blood, Johnson said.
Walker gave conflicting accounts of the attack, never able to speak in a complete sentence. At one point, he said he had "kicked momma" and "hurt momma" but another time denied he had injured her, Johnson said. In the house, he kicked a deputy in the face and had to be restrained with handcuffs and pepper spray, Johnson said.
A 2005 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law reported on the cases of three autistic defendants charged with murder. Two were sent to prison mental health units; the third was acquitted.
But an autistic man was convicted in 2004 in San Diego of killing a 17-year-old, and a man with a form of autism got a life prison term in South Carolina for killing a family friend.
(Source: Associated Press, September 14, 2009)