Washington County district attorney says dismissal of ethics charges …

The state bar has dropped ethics charges against Washington County’s district attorney and a defense lawyer accused of pushing to confine a mentally ill murder suspect, even though there was no legal basis to do so.

The Oregon State Bar rescinded the charges against District Attorney Bob Hermann and Robert Axford, said Kateri Walsh,  a state bar spokeswoman.

The allegations stemmed from an October 2011 court order titled “mental illness magistrate hold” that the two men put forward jointly. It resulted in Donn Thomas Spinosa — a schizophrenic who has twice been indicted in his ex-wife’s 1997 slaying — being confined to the Oregon State Hospital.

According to police and court documents, Spinosa stabbed Kathleen T. Relay, of Aloha, 20 to 40 times because she wouldn’t give him money for video poker.

Since his arrest shortly after the killing, Spinosa has mostly been held in state mental health facilities. His second indictment came after Hermann said the state hospital was planning to discharge him because it had provided all the services it could.

At the time the magistrate order was signed, Hermann said it an unusual solution to avoid the release of a dangerous person unfit to stand trial.  

The case came to the state bar’s attention after retired Lane County Judge Jim Hargreaves filed a complaint in December 2011, saying the order did not exist within the law. “Such an order is entirely without legal foundation in Oregon and stripped Mr. Spinosa of all his rights and protections,” he wrote.

Upon returning to the state hospital in 2011, Spinosa was civilly committed and the Washington County court order was vacated at the hospital’s request to avoid confusion and future legal issues.

The state bar’s investigation was not focused on determining whether the magistrate hold was legal, Walsh said Tuesday.

“That was not our charge,” she said.

Instead, the bar said in a statement, the “issue was whether they took a legal position without any merit when they knew it was without any merit and by doing so engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.”

To prove the case, Walsh said, the state bar would have needed to show that the attorneys knowingly took a legal position with no basis.

“Most notably, the OSB’s case rested on a belief that Hermann and Axford crafted an order essentially to bypass Oregon’s civil commitment process in order to permanently institutionalize a criminal defendant without due process of law,” the state bar’s statement says.

The investigation showed that Hermann and Axford were trying to initiate, not bypass, civil commitment proceedings for Spinosa, the statement said.

Axford did not respond to a request for comment.

Hermann said Tuesday he is grateful for the outcome: “There’s a lot of emotions and legitimate concerns around people with mental illness.”

But in this case, he said, the state bar reached “the right result” and the Spinosa case has led to positive changes in the law.

Hermann said the case helped lead to the state legislature’s passage this summer of Senate Bill 421, which creates new guidelines for civilly committing people designated to be “extremely dangerous.” The new law bridges the criminal system and the civil commitment process, he said.

Among the law’s features, it allows prosecutors to petition the court for civil commitment hearings, permits Psychiatric Security Review Board supervision for the committed and allows prosecutors to request a mental evaluation for patients before their release from supervision.  

“It plugs the gaps and more,” Hermann said.

– Emily E. Smith

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