Wellman committed to Hawaii State Hospital
Judge rules woman, acquitted of traffic deaths by reason of insanity, not safe to return to community
explains his reasons for not granting Ashley Wellman supervised release Friday morning. Wellman, 34, of Waiehu was acquitted of murder by reason of insanity in connection with the October
2016 traffic deaths of Pukalani residents Debi Wylie, 63, and Traci Winegarner, 57. They died in a truck that Wellman crashed into while driving a Nissan Sentra. Staff Writer
WAILUKU — A woman acquitted of murder by reason of insanity was committed to the Hawaii State Hospital on Friday, with a judge saying it wasn’t appropriate to release her into the community.
“I think that this defendant cannot be adequately controlled in the community,” 2nd Circuit Mental Health Court Judge Richard Bissen said, in ruling in the case of Ashley Wellman.
Wellman, 34, of Waiehu had sought to be released after she was acquitted of murder and other charges for causing an Oct.
8, 2016, crash on Haleakala
Pukalani. She was driving a
Nissan sedan traveling 127 mph in the uphill direction when she ran a red light and hit a 1998 Toyota pickup truck that was turning left from Makani Road onto the highway, according to a police investigation.
Pukalani residents Debi Wylie, 63, and Traci Winegarner, 57, who were in the truck, died at the scene of the crash.
On Aug. 7, 2nd Circuit Judge Peter Cahill acquitted Wellman in a nonjury stipulated-facts trial. His verdict was based on reports by three mental health professionals who examined Wellman and found that she had been 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 at the time of the crash.
The same three psychologists or psychiatrists said Wellman was then mentally fit to proceed in her criminal case.
Bissen said said he couldn’t think of a similar case where experts found a defendant “so severely impacted by their mental illness that they are excused from taking a life.”
“Think about that. We’re not talking about someone excused from stealing something from a store or taking a car or doing something that, unfortunately, happens all the time in our community,” Bissen said. “Someone has died. The actions of this individual were so severe that she was excused from this conduct and she is not responsible for her conduct. And yet in a short time — and I’m just trying to wrap my head around that — she is no longer impacted by that.”
Shortly after the crash, Wellman reportedly told a worker in the emergency room at Maui Memorial Medical Center that she “was originally going up to Haleakala Crater to be at peace,” but changed her mind and “just wanted to die.”
Police said “she refused to give a statement and said she wanted to contact her attorney” when a police officer talked to her that afternoon.
More than a year later, in interviews with the three mental health professionals, Wellman denied she had been suicidal the day of the crash. She told the doctors she had been delusional and was trying to escape from an uncle who had sexually assaulted her in the past.
“We may never know why this occurred,” Bissen said Friday. “Two years later, that’s somehow still in doubt.
“What’s not in doubt, all three doctors agree that the defendant continues to pose a risk to our community. They just disagree on what level that is.”
While Dr. Martin Blinder and state psychologist Alex Lichton said Wellman posed a low risk of danger to herself and others if released into the community, psychologist George Choi rated her risk at moderate to high and recommended
she be committed to the state health director for additional treatment. In his report, Lichton said he believed Wellman was feigning or exaggerating psychotic symptoms to gain a favorable court outcome.
The three doctors agreed that Wellman needs treatment, Bissen said. “The only question is where should she get that treatment,” Bissen said.
Defense attorney Matthew Nardi said conditional release would be appropriate for Wellman, who “responds well to treatment.”
At the time of the crash, she had stopped taking her prescribed mental health medication because she had no medical insurance, Nardi said.
Deputy Prosecutor Andrew Martin said Wellman gave another explanation to her doctor at Kaiser Behavioral Health, saying the medication “wasn’t working for me. I didn’t like it. I stopped taking it.”
Martin said commitment to the state hospital was “the best way to address her needed treatment and the risks of danger to the community.”
After she shows she is making progress at the State Hospital, Wellman could be moved into a halfway house, group home or supervised living situation or into a program to address both her substance abuse and mental health issues, Martin said. “And eventually, when the time is appropriate, be transitioned back to the community on Maui if that does become appropriate,” he said.
“But the idea of going from A to Z and skipping every step in between is one that in this case defies all logic and common sense,” Martin said. “Everyone agrees . . . the risk
of danger is extreme, is as extreme as it can get. The history of the patient is one that involves lethality. So that’s our greatest risk moving forward.”
Bissen said he had to consider whether Wellman should receive treatment at home, where she could walk to her therapist and counseling, or be confined to the State Hospital.
He said the State Hospital didn’t want Wellman there, “but not because she doesn’t need to be there.”
“It’s because they have more severe people they feel should be there,” Bissen said. “Their space is limited. If they had space to accommodate her, they would probably have a different position.”
In ruling that Wellman be committed to the State Hospital for further treatment and supervision, Bissen said he agreed with psychologist Choi, whose opinion was “more persuasive, more well informed and more supported by the evidence.”
“I don’t think the defendant is ready for conditional release at this point in time,” Bissen said. “Based on the opinions of all three doctors, it looks like she will be and she can be, but it’s not going to be today.
“I have to balance the interests of Ms. Wellman with the interests of the rest of our community. I don’t think it comes down to what she wishes or wants. I think it’s what she needs.”
Wellman, who had been held temporarily at the Hawaii State Hospital since being acquitted, was transported back to the hospital after the ruling Friday.
The judge set a review hearing for April 24.
Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.
Ashley Wellman sits with attorney Matthew Nardi during Friday’s hearing