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Medical Experts Debate ALS Caused Mental Illness in Murder Trial

The murder trial of a former sheriff deputy in Dane County, Wisconsin featured testimony from two medical experts this week who debated whether the defendant’s claim that he suffers from a mental illness due to his ALS diagnosis is legitimate.  Andrew Steele, 40, has pled guilty to the murder of his wife and sister-in-law, but argues that his ALS, a terminal muscular disease known as Lou Gherig’s disease, affected his mental state at the time of the killings.  Expert witnesses representing both sides testified to the validity of the defendant’s position.

Wisconsin Sheriff Deputy Pleads Guilty to Murder

On August 22nd, 2014 Andrew Steele killed his wife Ashlee Steele, 39, and his sister-in-law Kacee Tollefsbol, 38, in his Wisconsin home. Steele, who resigned his position as a sheriff’s deputy after being diagnosed with ALS, initially denied his involvement but later pled guilty and conceded that he had killed his wife and sister-in-law due to a mental defect associated with his terminal illness.  As jurors consider whether Steele will spend the rest of his life in prison or in a facility run by Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services, they were shown images of the crime scene that indicated Steele attacked the women and strangled them with zip ties affixed around their neck.  Tollefsbol was also the victim of a gunshot wound, and both women were handcuffed after an apparent struggle that carried on throughout the house.

Police investigators found a note on Steele’s phone suggesting that the three had a suicide pact, and the defendant has stated that his ALS diagnosis impaired his ability to recognize his behavior was wrong or illegal.

Defense Expert Witness Testifies ALS Diagnosis Could Create Mental Illness

First to testify on the impact of Steele’s ALS diagnosis on his mental state was Dr. Doug Tucker, a medical expert hired by Steele’s defense team to support his claim that ALS influenced his state of mind.  According to Dr. Tucker, Steele suffered from a serious mental disease caused by his terminal illness.  Dr. Tucker testified that Steele’s cognitive ability to control his behavior was so strongly impaired by his ALS that he was unable to act in accordance with the law.

Dr. Tucker’s expert testimony spoke directly to the key elements of a legal defense in favor of hospitalization over imprisonment by informing jurors that Steele’s condition eliminated the requisite mental state required to commit an act of murder under the law.  If Steele’s neurocognitive processing was so distorted that he could not tell right from wrong, then jurors will be permitted to consider sentencing him to institutionalization rather than incarceration.

Prosecution Expert Witness Rejects ALS Mental Illness

In response to Dr. Tucker’s expert witness testimony, prosecutors called a medical expert of their own to analyze Mr. Steele’s mental state at the time of the murder.  Dr. Paul Barkhaus, director of the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis program at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, analyzed Steele’s medical records and testified that had there been any indication that he suffered from a neurocognitive disorder as a result of his ALS then he would have been referred to a neuropsychologist for further evaluation.

Although Dr. Barkhaus declined to speak directly to Dr. Tucker’s testimony because the prosecution expert is not a neuropsychologist, he testified that Steele’s ability to drive a car in traffic and interact with his family indicated that his mental state was not so deteriorated that he could not follow the law.  According to Dr. Barkhaus’s testimony Steele would have likely displayed other violent tendencies if his ALS effected his cognitive processes, indicating to jurors that the defendant’s argument was not medically plausible.

The case is expected to continue through the week before jurors determine the former sheriff deputy’s fate.