Maui News, DOH clash over release of reports

Judge to decide whether to make public crash case psychiatric assessment findings

Wellman

The Maui News is supporting and the state health director is opposing the unsealing of court psychiatric reports that led to the acquittal by reason of insanity of a woman who had been charged with murder in a fatal traffic crash.

Ashley Wellman, 34, of Waiehu was found not guilty of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and excessive speeding. Three doctors who conducted psychiatric or psychological examinations of her agreed that, at the time of the crash, she was affected by a physical or mental disease, disorder or defect that substantially impaired her capacity to conform her conduct to the requirements of the law.

A police investigation determined that Wellman was driving a 2011 silver Nissan Altima that ran a red light while traveling 127 mph uphill on Haleakala Highway at 10:26 a.m. on Oct. 8, 2016. The sedan broadsided a white 1998 Toyota pickup truck that was turning left onto the highway from Makani Road. 

Pukalani residents Debra Wylie, 63, who was driving the truck, and her passenger and partner, Traci Winegarner, 57, died at the scene of the collision.

“To preserve the integrity and perceived fairness of the court’s decision, the public must have access to the reports that the court relied on in making its determination that Wellman should be acquitted of all charges,” attorney Robert Brian Black of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, representing The Maui News, said in a memorandum of support filed Monday in 2nd Circuit Court.

The state Department of the Attorney General, representing the state health director, filed a memorandum Wednesday “in very strong opposition to unseal any medical and mental health records” in the case.

“As a record of the court, it is imperative for medical and mental health records to remain sealed as it is explicitly prohibited from being included in any accessible document filed in any state court,” the memorandum said.

The issue of unsealing the reports was raised by 2nd Circuit Judge Peter Cahill when he acquitted Wellman on Aug. 7.

Although the reports were sealed so they couldn’t be viewed by the public, Cahill said no court order had been filed to seal the records.

He said the records would be unsealed unless good cause for sealing them could be shown.

“It does form the basis for acquittal of extremely serious criminal charges, the most serious,” Cahill said in court Aug. 7. “I think the public has the right to know what is in the reports, at least to some extent.”

In the memorandum filed on behalf of The Maui News, Black wrote that Wellman had faced life in prison if convicted of murder.

“Absent the acquittal, a jury trial and sentencing would have provided an outlet for community concerns and the families of her victims,” Black said. “Now, based on the court’s determination, Wellman will be held for an indeterminate period in the Hawaii State Hospital. 

“The psychiatric reports that formed the basis for the court’s acquittal must be available to the public to provide a measure of closure for the community to understand what happened.”

In the state health director’s memorandum, Deputy Attorney General Debbie Tanakaya cited privacy rights in health care information. Her memorandum said release of the reports in Wellman’s case could result in “a chilling effect in the reports filed by the medical professionals.”

“Knowing that their highly sensitive medical reports could have the possibility of being open for public inspection, the medical professionals might limit the information contained in the reports to the bare minimum necessary pursuant to state law. . . . This would greatly impact the court and attorneys because the details written into the reports often provide critical information that better aid the legal community rather than a simple sentence saying, ‘Defendant is fit’ or ‘Defendant is unfit,’ “ the memorandum said.

Black said “there is no valid concern that court-appointed fitness examiners will provide meaningless reports.”

He said the law requires examiners to say more than that a defendant is fit or unfit.

“And medical professionals who submit such unhelpful reports will be more open to challenges and more likely to be disregarded by the court that must make the fitness determination,” Black said. “There is no reasonable basis to believe that medical professionals will ignore statutory requirements and publish useless competency reports.”

The three doctors who found that Wellman had been “substantially impaired” at the time of the crash also found that she was now mentally fit to proceed in her case.

After being acquitted Aug. 7, Wellman was temporarily committed to the Hawaii State Hospital pending a review hearing Wednesday.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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