Department of Health and Human Services will handle care, treatment
KALISPELL - The state Department of Health and Human Services will be responsible for the "custody, care and treatment" of Jesse Ernst, the 21-year-old Bigfork man found innocent April 18 by reason of mental disease or defect in the murder of Larry Streeter and a string of burglaries.
District Judge John Warner of Havre on Monday rejected a plea by Ernst's attorney Phyllis Quatman of Whitefish to release Ernst into the custody of Jeremy Myers, the 25-year-old pastor of a Whitefish church, and his wife, Wendy. Ernst has been living in a spare room in the basement of Myers' home the last several weeks while under house arrest, pending Monday's hearing.
Warner said Ernst remains a danger both to society and possibly to himself, and he cannot walk away a free man despite the innocent verdict.
Warner said he found Ernst's credibility doubtful and noticed a "dramatic change in demeanor" between the trial and Monday's disposition hearing.
At trial, Ernst was downcast, spoke little if at all to anyone, and rarely if ever exhibited animation or even smiled.
He smiled easily Monday, answered the judge's questions with his head up, not down.
"I've experienced the wrong sort of things, and I know I don't want to get caught up in that again," he told the judge, apparently referring to the criminal enterprise he and his brother, Ted, were involved in the fall and winter of 1997 that culminated in the murder of Streeter, a popular and respected Bigfork businessman who surprised the two burglarizing a neighbor's home on Christmas night.
Judge Warner said he would not second-guess the jury's verdict
But, he noted, several experts have found Ernst to be free of any psychosis or other serious mental disease, with the possible exception of Klinefelter's syndrome - a genetic condition Ernst suffers from, but which is not necessarily associated with serious mental defects or behavioral problems. Indeed, many apparently normal people go through their entire lives not knowing they have the condition.
The judge said Ernst was carrying two firearms the night of Streeter's murder. "He had no other reason to carry weapons except for the advance plan to shoot someone," the judge said. The crime spree with his brother Ted was a "continuing course of conduct that presents an extreme danger to the public," Judge Warner concluded.
He rejected Quatman's suggestion that Ernst be released to the custody of the Myers' family in Whitefish.
"The court does not have the resources or statutory ability to enforce conditions short of commitment" to Department of health and Human Services, Warner said.
He told Ernst to turn himself in to the Kalispell DHHS office between 1:30 and 2 p.m. on Thursday, at which time the $350,000 bond will be exonerated, and he may remove his ankle bracelet that has monitored his whereabouts since his release.
Gail Gray, director of the DHHS in Helena, said her agency was made aware of the court's decision, and her agency has requested all relevant court documents so officials in Helena and at the Warms Springs State Hospital can review the case.
"Serious discussion and planning will begin Tuesday, after everyone has an opportunity to read the court information," she said.
Ernst served 2 1/2 years in prison before he was allowed to change his guilty plea to innocent and go to trial.
Paul Bach, a licensed clinical psychologist appointed by the judge to recommend appropriate disposition of the case, said the state hospital at Warm Springs, where criminally insane people are housed in a secure setting, is not the right place for Ernst.
"There is no significant psychopathology with respect to Mr. Ernst," Bach told the judge.
Ernst is not psychotic, and has none of the usual serious personality disorders usually diagnosed in a criminal cases where the "mental disease or defect" defense is raised.
At worst, he has cognition problems (attributable to a learning disability), and possibly could be classified under the psychologist's catch-all diagnosis of "nonspecific personality disorder" with "passive/dependent features," Bach said.
He said Ernst would benefit by a "structured" environment in a supervised setting where someone could make sure he remained on his medication, and where he could get three to seven years of sustained psychotherapy.
Bach said he could not predict if Ernst will continue to be a threat or danger to the public. But, he said, Ernst remains easily influenced by others. It was a defense at trial that Jesse Ernst was manipulated and preyed upon by his older brother, resulting in Jesse's cooperation in the burglaries and cover-up of the murder.
Bach said Jesse Ernst is employable, and may be able to live a relatively normal life, including marriage and economic independence, under the right circumstances.
Ernst's disposition likely would be assigned to the Addictive and Mental Disorders Division of DHHS. A phone call to that agency was not immediately returned.
Quatman said she had not looked into the services provided by Public Health and Human Services, aside from the Warm Springs State Hospital option.