Judge to unseal redacted psych reports in crash case
Wellman was acquitted by reason of insanity of murder in fatal collision
Second Circuit Judge Peter Cahill ruled Thursday that redacted versions of psychological reports that formed the foundation of the acquittal by reason of insanity of a woman who was charged with murder in a fatal crash in 2016 may be made public.
“The court concludes as a matter of law that the public has a legitimate interest in the mental health evaluations that led to” defendant Ashley Wellman’s “acquittal of the charged offenses on the grounds of mental disease, disorder or defect,” Cahill said.
He ordered the release of the reports by
Blinder and psychologists
George Choi and Alex Lichton on Oct. 24, unless any party files an appeal.
In August, Cahill issued an order to show cause as to why the medical reports should not be unsealed.
In response, The Maui News filed a memorandum supporting the unsealing of the psychological evaluations. Brian Black of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, who represented the newspaper, argued in the memorandum that the reports should be made public “to preserve the integrity and perceived fairness of the court’s decision.”
The state attorney general’s office, representing the Health Department, and Wellman’s attorney, Matthew Nardi, opposed the unsealing of the reports, citing privacy issues. The attorney general also was concerned about an overarching ruling and wanted to make sure that mental health examinations would remain sealed in other cases.
Judge Cahill made it a point to say that his ruling only addresses the particular facts of this case and the bench trial but said that the disclosure of the reports would not violate Wellman’s privacy.
“Disclosure of the court-ordered reports will not violate Ms. Wellman’s constitutional right of privacy to the extent that those reports concern information relevant to the determination of her fitness and penal responsibility in the criminal proceeding,” Cahill said.
The judge noted that the psychological reports to determine Wellman’s fitness for trial were performed at her request and at the public’s expense and that he reviewed the reports before entering the acquittal.
The public has a constitutional right to access the three psychological reports, unless there is “a compelling interest” to seal them, he said. The standard for sealing the reports requires the court to find that disclosure would result in “irreparable damage.”
Wellman’s privacy concerns did not rise to the compelling interest standard.
“As to the information in the
reports that formed the basis of the court-ordered, medical-legal opinions regarding fitness and penal responsibility, closure will not serve a compelling interest because Ms. Wellman’s privacy concerns must yield to the legitimate public interest in the integrity of the criminal justice system,” the judge said.
While the reports should be unsealed, Cahill said that there is “a valid privacy concern and . . . no legitimate public interest” regarding personal background information that is “irrelevant to her fitness or penal responsibility” in the deaths of two women in the traffic crash.
“The court shall redact the irrelevant personal information but only such information that had no bearing or relationship to the issues resolved in this case,” the judge said.
The redactions also will include third parties “not before the court in this proceeding,” he said. Individuals not publicly connected to this case have a valid privacy concern.
In his order, the judge specifically called for redacting sections about Wellman’s childhood and adolescent years, adult relationships, names of family members and medical providers and institutions.
Wellman, 34, of Waiehu was found not guilty of first-degree murder, two counts of seconddegree murder and excessive speeding.
The three doctors who conducted psychiatric or psychological examinations 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 in the uphill direction 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 Debi Wylie, 63, who was driving the truck, and her passenger and partner, Traci Winegarner, 57, died at the scene of the collision.
In Wellman’s nonjury trial Aug. 7, Cahill relied on facts that were agreed upon by the defense and prosecution in finding by a preponderance of the evidence that Wellman, at the time of the crash, 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 or her capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct.
In his ruling Thursday, Cahill noted that the proceeding was in fact an actual trial and that the court had a constitutional obligation to accept the stipulated facts as conclusively proven.
“The public’s interest in ascertaining the basis for the agreement by the state as to the stipulated facts, and the court’s ruling, bolsters the conclusion that disclosure of the redacted reports is warranted,” he said.
In the acquittal, Wellman avoided a possible life sentence if convicted in a jury trial. She currently is in the Hawaii State Hospital awaiting the conclusion of a proceeding to evaluate her dangerousness in 2nd Circuit Judge Richard Bissen’s court. His options range from conditional release to committal to the state hospital.
Attempts to reach state Health Department officials and Nardi were unsuccessful Friday.
Lee Imada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PETER CAHILLRules in favor of The Maui News
Pukalani residents Debi Wylie (right) and partner Traci Winegarner died at the scene of the collision.