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Stagner found insane, trial cancelled

Greg Masse
Staff Writer

One of the nation’s top forensic psychiatrists found Steven Michael Stagner was insane when Stagner shot seven Mexicans in Rifle, killing four of them, in July 2001.

That’s the same opinion reached by every psychiatrist who has examined Stagner since the shootings.

As a result of the long-awaited determinations, even Ninth District Attorney Mac Myers said Monday he’s convinced that Stagner was insane.

The finding, announced in Ninth District Court in Glenwood Springs on Monday, means there will be no jury trial for Stagner.

Instead, Stagner will face a trial to the court Oct. 7-8 to let doctors tell the public why they all found him insane.

If convicted of murder, Stagner could have received life in prison. But in light of Monday’s hearing, he will most likely be sent to the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo.

In Colorado, legal insanity means not knowing the difference between right and wrong at the time the crime is committed.

The psychiatric evaluations released Monday that changed the outcome of the criminal case against Stagner were conducted by Dr. Park Dietz of Newport Beach, Calif., one of the country’s top forensic psychiatrists, and Dr. Richard Pounds of the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo.

Breaking his three-month court-imposed silence on the case, Myers said he’s disappointed by the outcome, but admitted it’s the only alternative.

“Findings were that he was insane at the time of the shootings,” Myers said Monday after the hearing.

Myers and deputy district attorney Gretchen Larson said they opted to hold a trial to the court simply because they had no evidence proving Stagner was sane when he committed the shootings. Thus, the prosecutors had no choice but to agree with the insanity plea put forward by the defense.

“There’s no evidence to rebut insanity,” Myers said.

In Colorado, once the issue of insanity is brought up, the burden is on the prosecution to prove the defendant’s sanity.

“We’re pretty disappointed, but not surprised, all things considered,” he said. “We’re all stuck with the facts we have, and that’s where the facts have taken us.”

Myers said family members and friends of the victims, most of whom are Spanish-speaking, also were disappointed. But he also said they understood that under the law, there is no other choice.

“They seem to understand why we are where we are,” Myers said. “I think it’s difficult to accept, given the horror of this crime.”

Proof of Stagner’s mental insanity will be shared with the public at the trial to the court.

The process was described by another Colorado district attorney as a way to show the public that the evidence of insanity is too overwhelming to try Stagner in a regular jury trial.

The public trial gives the press and public something tangible to watch so they understand why the defendant will be placed in a mental hospital. Myers said the public trial is also used to add speed and convenience to the process when there is a foregone conclusion, as in this case.

Seven to 10 witnesses will testify, Myers estimated, each displaying evidence that Stagner is insane.

A lock-tight opinion

In all, there were two psychological examinations and two evaluations, each finding Stagner insane.

One of the evaluations was performed by Dietz, a world-renowned forensic psychiatrist, and his associate, Dr. Daniel Martell.

Dietz is same forensic psychiatrist who found such notorious killers as Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who drowned her five children, would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr., and killer-cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer to be sane.

But to Myers’ surprise, Dietz and Martell found Stagner to be insane.

“I don’t think any other doctor could have convinced me,” Myers said. “Despite some of the things said by the defense about Dietz, he’s probably the best psychiatrist in the United States.”

He was referring to statements made earlier this year by one of Stagner’s defense attorneys, Greg Greer, indicating Dietz is a hired gun who will find defendants sane so they can be tried by a jury.

Dietz’s opinion stated, “to a reasonable degree of psychiatric and psychological certainty, at the time of the crime Mr. Stagner was suffering an acute psychotic episode arising from his long-standing and serious psychiatric illness (schizoaffective disorder) that significantly impaired his cognitive capacity to distinguish right from wrong.

“It is also our opinion that Mr. Stagner, by virtue of his history and chronic mental disorder, presents a grave and continuing risk of future danger to himself and/or others in the community,” Dietz reported.

In addition to the Dietz opinion, Stagner was also found insane in a new report revealed Monday by psychiatrist Dr. Richard Pounds. Drs. David S. Johnson and Sy Sundell already issued similar findings.

The evaluation by Dietz, which was not ordered by the court, has cost $14,000 thus far and is expected to rise dramatically when he testifies at the public trial.

The cost will be paid by Garfield County and by a fund provided by the state, Myers said.

Although Stagner was found insane, Myers said the money was – and will be – well spent.

“This is the kind of case where it’s really important for the people of Garfield County to know we did everything we could,” Myers said.

Once Stagner officially is found innocent by reason of insanity – a ruling that is all but assured – he will be relegated to the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo for a one-day to life sentence.

But that doesn’t mean he’ll be set free any time soon.

“They’d have to get a judge’s order for him to be let out. He’d have to prove he no longer has a disease,” Myers said. The likelihood of that happening for Stagner is extremely slim, he added.

As part of the public trial testimony, Myers said he’ll focus on possible future danger from Stagner if he were to be let out.

Stagner, 43, faces first-degree murder charges for allegedly killing four Mexicans – Juan Hernandez-Carrillo, brothers Melquiades and Juan Carlos Medrano-Velasquez, and Angelica Toscano-Salgado.

He also faces three charges of attempted murder for shooting and seriously wounding three other men.

All were Mexicans living in Rifle and working in the region.

They were shot close to midnight on July 3, 2001, in the Rifle City Market parking lot and in the courtyard of the nearby Bookcliff Mobile Home Park in Rifle.

Stagner was arrested by Rifle police minutes after the shootings, brandishing a pistol.

Since his arrest he has been held without bond in the Garfield County Jail.


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