Lawyers spar over Rifle shooter’s request
September 20, 2012
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Steven Michael Stagner, who shot seven people in 2002, should not be permitted to take day trips from the mental hospital where he has lived for the past decade, a prosecutor said Wednesday, because no one can guarantee he will not kill again.
That was the argument from Deputy District Attorney Andrea Bryan, presenting her closing arguments on Wednesday concerning Stagner’s request for “temporary removal” privileges from the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo.
Public defender Tina Fang, representing Stagner, told Garfield County District Judge Denise Lynch that Stagner should be allowed out of the hospital for day trips because his doctors are convinced he will not get better if he stays in the “controlled environment” at the hospital. He needs exposure to the real world, the doctors believe, in order to prepare for re-entry into society, Fang contended in her closing arguments.
An all-day hearing with witness testimony took place Sept. 13 followed by the closing arguments on Wednesday. Stagner was not in the courtroom but was listening to the proceedings via telephone.
Stagner, 53, has been confined at the mental institution since June 26, 2002, over a shooting rampage in Rifle on July 4, 2001, that left four people dead and three others wounded.
He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and has been diagnosed as bipolar with “schizoid” tendencies. He suffers from religious delusions, according to court testimony, in which he believes himself to be the Archangel Michael, with the mission of ridding the world of evil people, according to court documents and testimony.
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The judge in the case at the time, T. Peter Craven, ruled that Stagner had committed the crimes as charged, including murder and attempted murder. But because he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, according to Bryan, he is not facing time in prison even if he is deemed to be cured of his insanity at some point.
In court on Tuesday, Fang argued that Stagner has gotten as well as he can at the mental hospital, and she pointed out that his doctors believe he no longer poses a threat to the public as long as he takes his medications and is supervised by mental-health professionals.
And the doctors, Fang asserted, are being cautious in their dealings with Stagner, having already turned him down three times in the past for the type of “temporary removal” privileges that they now recommend.
She called the matter “a weighty decision” facing Lynch but also “a fairly easy decision” because the doctors are convinced that gradual reintegration into society is the correct next step in Stagner’s therapy.
Bryan, however, reminded the judge about Stagner’s 2001 shooting rampage and the periodic recurrence of certain behavioral “warning signs” that his therapy at the mental hospital was not proving entirely effective.
She said she found it “disturbing” that the doctors who testified showed “a real, palpable affection” for Stagner while they were on the stand, and she worried that their feelings might be a result of manipulation by their patient.
“No one can tell us he’s not faking,” Bryan said. “He may know what needs to be said,” she said, and how to meet the doctors’ expectations in a way that wins them over to his side.
She said the judge should come down on the side of community safety when considering the question of whether to grant Stagner the privileges requested by the hospital.
The public, along with the families of Stagner’s victims, she said, “all hope that the answer to that question would be, ‘No, we shouldn’t be taking that risk.'”
Should the judge decide in Stagner’s favor, Bryan cautioned, “If we’re wrong, … we’re not talking about a theft or escape or inappropriate touching (that might reoccur). We’re talking about a mass shooting.”
The judge announced on Wednesday that she would consider the matter and issue a written ruling at a later date.