Expert: Wells committed manslaughter, not murder
MAYVILLE – Wednes-day was a pivotal day in the Jason Wells murder trial, as both the prosecution and defense wrangled over the crux of the debate – was it delusions or alcohol that played a bigger role in Wells’ killing of Ruth Fisk?
Defense attorney Lyle Hajdu called forensic psychologist Dr. Charles Ewing to offer an expert opinion. Ewing said Wells had the capacity to kill Fisk, but no appreciation of wrongfulness at the time due to an extreme emotional disturbance; in other words, Wells committed manslaughter, not murder.
Before Ewing took the stand, Hajdu tried entering into evidence two video snippets by the Sheriff’s department of Wells’ seven-hour interrogation with psychologists. He asserted the videos could help Ewing tell his story, but Judge John Ward denied the motion. Thus, the jury could not view it.
“These videos go to the heart of the defense’s case,” Hajdu protested when District Attorney David Foley asked Ward to rule against allowing the videos.
Foley had Ewing testify on cross-examination that he rarely tapes his examinations since it can have “detrimental effects” on what people say. Ward seemed swayed.
“Just showing certain snippets could have a prejudicial effect on the jury … since demeanor can change over time,” Ward concluded.
Wells, a former resident of Fredonia’s One Temple Square apartment complex, stabbed and beat Fisk, 81, a retired nurse and a fellow One Temple Square resident and friend, to death on Feb. 4, 2010. He was 37 at the time.
The defendant faces second-degree murder, a crime punishable by 25 years to life behind bars.
DELUSIONS DROVE HIM TO KILL
The defense’s sole witness on Wednesday asserted the delusions Wells believed eventually caused him to commit a homicide.
Ewing examined Wells three times: July 2010, September 2011 and May 2014, the latter two to assess competency to stand trial, before and after his stay at a psychiatric center. Ewing said he reviewed all case records available to him prior to his evaluation of Wells, including health records.
According to those records, Wells received his first-ever mental health diagnosis in January 2003 at WCA Hospital in Jamestown: schizoaffective disorder with alcoholic tendencies.
In Ewing’s exam notes, Wells continuously spat out delusional material he “believed to be true,” as the forensic psychologist stated. This included the following non-exhaustive list of accusations: Fisk came into Wells’ room and put a knife in his mouth and a finger in his anus; Wells’ mother put a knife in his ear and then left his life for a while; Fisk and another woman fired a shotgun at his head while he slept, leaving a hole in his mattress; Fisk paid $20 to Wells’ mother to babysit him and sodomize him when he was younger; and Wells discovered a picture of Fisk cutting a girl’s neck.
According to Wells, Fisk also “robbed banks and grabbed children, but people ignored what she was doing,” and “hired a hitman to kill him,” too. Wells also said he killed Fisk in 2008 by drowning her, but she came “back to life,” unzipped the body bag she was put in and walked out of the morgue.
“I see no evidence the victim was a sexual predator or criminal or that she sexually touched people; it all seems part of his (Wells’) delusions. Clearly, a lot of this is grossly delusional and psychotic on its own,” Ewing said, remarking Wells showed blunted outward emotions during exams. “I found him cooperative, but guarded and suspicious, monotone, and would at times give rambling, circumstantial tangents.
“As far as I know, Ruth Fisk was just a kind, elderly woman who did him (Wells) no harm.”
Wells also talked about Hajdu, who apparently “grew a foot taller and changed the color of his eyes.”
Ewing said he found similar delusions brought up in the videotape of Fisk’s murder, initially presented by the prosecution, as well as Wells’ written statement confessing his involvement to police, especially accusations of Fisk sodomizing Wells, his children and other children.
“At the time of the homicide, he seemed psychotic and out of touch with reality, talking nonsense related to this delusion he had about Fisk,” Ewing explained. “He had the ability to kill her and he told me he intended to.”
Hajdu asked Ewing if he believed Wells was insane, which Ewing denied, signaling the defense’s appeal to a charge of manslaughter instead of Wells’ indictment on murder.
“He knew and appreciated he was killing a human being,” Ewing stated, as if to rule out insanity.
He then pointed out the brutality of the killing indicated extreme anger.
“With regard to his appreciation of wrongfulness … I defer to (the previous defense expert, who said on Tuesday Wells could not have known of wrongfulness during the moment of the killing, possibly due to being justified by his delusions).”
Ewing, who also studied law, pointed out Wells could be guilty of manslaughter instead of murder if it is proven he was in a state of emotional distress at the time he killed Fisk.
WELLS WAS INTOXICATED AT TIME OF KILLING
Assistant District Attorney Grace Hanlon engaged Ewing in a heated cross-examination, making Wells’ apparent alcohol and drug problems central to her questions.
Hanlon had Ewing first point out that in his notes, he wrote Wells had admitted he, in fact, understood and appreciated the wrongfulness of killing Fisk since he tried cleaning up the mess afterward, disposed of evidence in a dumpster and wrapped her in a carpet. Ewing on re-direct explained Wells could not have a defense of insanity as a result of this, but could still claim to have extreme emotional disturbances at the time he murdered Fisk, with the cleanup of evidence after the fact.
Medical records also indicated that in October 2007, Lake Shore Health Care Center mental health workers reviewed Wells themselves and found his thoughts were “organized, logical and related to the topic of the conversation.”
Hajdu, on re-direct, later had Ewing testify that Lake Shore employees also discerned Wells appeared to be “responsive to internal stimuli.”
The cross-examiner then made Ewing aware Wells had been treated in counseling at alcohol rehab, which Ewing was unable to review prior to his exams with Wells since records were scarce.
“So, where records were nowhere to be found, you relied on Wells’ mother to fill in the holes in the psychiatric history, correct?” Hanlon insinuated, referring to Wells’ records destroyed in the 2009 flood at Tri-County Hospital in Gowanda. Ewing reluctantly agreed.
Hanlon then pointed out Wells was intoxicated the night he murdered Fisk and became frustrated that his camera was not working, which could be heard on the videotape of the killing.
“He admitted to you he had been drinking the night before and was drunk, right?” Hanlon asked, to which Ewing agreed. “And then he also said, ‘I put up with her crap and did almost all her shopping…”
Hanlon also brought up that Wells told Ewing he smoked crack in 1993 and “lost it;” admitted to being in fights while drunk before; and confessed, “My friendships have been with people who do drugs and drink.” Hanlon pointed out at this point that Wells had apparently overdosed on pills when he was 19, possibly affecting his ability to reason.
According to Ewing, Wells even told him he smoked and sipped beer as he watched Fisk’s body on his apartment floor.
“He told you he felt bad about what happened?” Hanlon asked Ewing, who affirmed that statement and a subsequent one in which Wells said he initially lied to police to try to protect himself.
Hanlon then questioned why Ewing wrote that Wells had no rational motive for killing, even though Wells has a history of alcohol dependence.
“You’ve never heard of somebody who drinks, gets mad and then kills someone?” Hanlon questioned, to which Ewing replied, “Yes, I’ve heard of that before.”
After Ewing’s testimony, Hajdu announced the defense rested.
Trial proceedings should continue today at 9:45 a.m. with a few additional witnesses called by the prosecution before closing statements begin.
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