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Competency of ’04 murder suspect argued

Citizen Staff Writer



The Pima County Public Defender’s Office and the County Attorney’s Office are arguing over the mental competency of a murder suspect recently released from the state’s mental hospital.

Assistant Public Defender Brian Metcalf said a new indictment for a first-degree murder charge against Michael Lynn Steele violates his due process rights.

Deputy County Attorney Rick Unklesbay said Steele’s 18-month treatment at the Arizona State Hospital could have restored his competency.

Steele, 39, was indicted in 2004 in the June 12, 2004, shooting death of Elton Prunty, whose body was found in a wash on the North Side.

On May 18, 2005, defense attorneys asked Warner to decide whether Steele was competent to stand trial, records show, because he said he showed signs of paranoid delusions.

Steele told police he worked with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, was trying to prevent a terrorist attack on Tucson, that Prunty worked for the president of the outlaw biker group Hell’s Angels and that the Hell’s Angels had put out a “hit” on Steele.

On July 1, 2005, Warner said Steele was incompetent and couldn’t understand the charges against him or help in his own defense. However, she thought he could be restored to competency within 15 months.

Three months later, though, the state hospital said Steele was still incompetent. After a series of hearings, Warner found Steele’s understanding of the case against him was “rooted in his delusional beliefs” and, despite an expert’s opinion, Steele wasn’t faking his mental illness.

On Oct. 31, 2006, Warner found that Steele likely couldn’t be restored within the maximum legal time limit of 21 months and should be sent to the state hospital with prosecutors initiating a civil commitment action against him.

On July 31, Steele was released from the hospital and was arrested immediately and taken to the Pima County Jail. He was indicted on one count of first-degree murder on Aug. 1.

Metcalf says in his motion to dismiss the indictment he asked Unklesbay what report declared Steele to be competent and was told there wasn’t any such report.

“The state may not use the criminal case as a way to indefinitely incarcerate Mr. Steele by re-indicting him in order to repeatedly challenge the previous finding that he is incompetent and non-restorable,” Metcalf wrote.

Unklesbay said prosecutors were notified when Steele was about to be released.

“Because of federal patient privacy laws,” Unklesbay wrote in his motion opposing a dismissal, “the hospital would not release any of the defendant’s records to the state but merely indicated that the defendant could no longer legally be kept at the hospital, yet remained a danger to the community.”

Unklesbay asked Judge Richard S. Fields to hold a hearing to determine whether Steele is competent to stand trial.

“A year and a half of mental health treatment provides a change in circumstances from the posture of the case against the defendant in 2006,” Unklesbay wrote. “Only through a new and current evaluation can the court make an informed decision regarding the defendant’s current ability to stand trial.”

In a separate motion, Metcalf said if Fields doesn’t dismiss the indictment, he should send the case back to a grand jury because a police officer misrepresented what Steele told him in 2004.

Steele told police he took a gun from Prunty and it “went off,” striking Prunty once in the head, Metcalf wrote.

But the officer told the grand jury that Steele admitted shooting Prunty, as if it were a deliberate act, Metcalf wrote.

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