MADISON (WKOW) – A jury will continue to hear evidence Monday regarding whether former, Dane County Sheriff's Deputy Andrew Steele murdered his wife and her sister due to mental illness.
Steele, who has been diagnosed with ALS, pleaded guilty to the murders of Ashlee Steele and Kacee Tollefsbol. The two were shot dead at Steele's home in August.
But Steele's defense team argues his ALS caused him to become mentally incapacitated. Steele's lawyers contend the disease caused his brain to deteriorate, and therefore he is not responsible for the murders. They finished calling witnesses to support their case last week.
Week two of the trial is expected to begin with prosecutors presenting witnesses that will poke holes in the defense's case.
Walter Dickey, a former professor of law at UW-Madison who also previously led the Wisconsin Division of Corrections, said the case of whether Steele is insane will be tried much like a civil case.
Dickey said the burden of proof rests with the defense to prove Steele is, more likely than not, mentally incapacitated.
In a criminal case, the burden of proof rests on the prosecution to prove a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Dickey said the alteration in the burden of proof is why the defense presented its case first in this trial.
“Not only does the defense have to establish that (Steele) suffered from a mental disease or defect, but also that his behavior was because of that disease or defect,” Dickey said.
Dickey said the defense must convince 10 people on the 12 member jury that Steele is insane, and therefore not responsible for the murders, to win the case.
In a criminal trial, all 12 jurors must agree on a verdict.
“The defense has got to convince 10 jurors that it's more likely than not, my words, that he's not responsible for the murders,” Dickey said.
Dickey also served as the chair of the state committee that last reviewed Wisconsin's statute regarding the insanity defense.
Prosecutors last week made a motion calling on the judge to rule that the defense had not presented enough evidence to meet its burden of proof and refrain from sending Steele's case to the jury.
The judge denied that motion. But Dickey said it's possible the motion could be renewed and the judge could reconsider – even after a verdict is reached by the jury.
“Judges are often reluctant to take cases away from the jury even if they think the evidence is extraordinarily thin,” Dickey said. “They'd rather let the jury decide it because that makes it a much less appealable case.”
“But if the jury finds contrary to the judge's view about the sufficiency of the evidence, the motions will be renewed and the judge will probably get to reconsider it,” Dickey said.
“It would be unusual, but it does happen that the judge would then rule the evidence was insufficient to even get to the jury,” he said.
Dickey said Steele faces life in prison with the earliest opportunity for parole being 20 years from now should the prosecution prevail and the jury rule that he is responsible for the murders.
If Steele is found not responsible, he would be committed to a mental institution for life. Although Dickey said he would be able to petition the court for release.
Dickey said those who successfully petition the court for release serve out the remainder of their commitment living outside the institution but remain under supervision. He said prosecutors must prove in such an instance that the defendant remains dangerous and/or mentally ill and thus should not be allowed to live amongst the public.
“People who have killed and claimed to be not responsible, and there's been a finding of not responsibility, usually continue to be mentally ill and dangerous or just dangerous, depending on what the standard is,” Dickey said. “Therefore they typically don't get out or get off. Although it does happen.”