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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Strandberg testimony questions Eastern State evaluations

Correctional deputies secure Cole Strandberg to his chair in Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen's courtroom for his insanity hearing, Feb. 16, 2011 in Spokane. Strandberg wears a spit guard over his head during the proceedings. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Testimony Wednesday in the insanity hearing of accused killer Cole K. Strandberg raised questions about evaluations and conclusions made by mental health professionals at Eastern State Hospital. Dr. Richard Adler, a forensic psychiatrist for the defense, read from documents that indicate Eastern State officials knew Strandberg was hearing voices commanding him to do things before they concluded he was essentially faking mental illness to get out of his murder charge. Adler read from an April 15, 2008, state report quoting Strandberg saying: “I hear voices.” The report went on to say: “He described the voice as being ‘very abusive’ … and it echoed as if it were the voices of all the jail inmates shouting at the same time.” Earlier in the case, Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Mark Cipolla asked a defense expert, a psychologist, why Strandberg didn’t discuss his delusions for more than a year after the killing of 22-year-old Jennifer Bergeron. Cipolla further asked why Strandberg hadn’t told mental health professionals at Eastern State about his other world when he was evaluated shortly after the Jan. 7, 2008, murder. Cipolla also has focused on a statement Strandberg made at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center on the day of the killing indicating he knew right from wrong. Strandberg told a nurse that he had done something wrong and was probably going to prison. But Adler found a report from the same day by an emergency room doctor who wrote: “When asked how he had been doing lately, (Strandberg) said he had some ‘demons’ and he has had voices telling him to do things.” “In my mind,” Adler said, those comments “should be viewed along with that other information.” Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen ended Tuesday by leaving open the question whether defense attorney Chris Bugbee could proceed with his insanity defense after Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Mark Cipolla called for a dismissal on legal grounds. On Wednesday, Eitzen ruled to continue and that she would accept an “expanded” view of case law that requires someone with mental illness to be under the command of God to also include a “higher power.” “There is evidence that the defendant … believes that there is this power or entity that exists in a delusional world that talks to him and tells him the consequences of doing things or not doing things,” Eitzen said. “I don’t think that is an unreasonable expansion” of the existing law. On Wednesday, Cipolla only called one witness, Dr. William Grant, a forensic psychiatrist at Eastern State Hospital. Grant acknowledged that he never determined whether some of the people Strandberg mentioned – including a drill sergeant named Smokey Kaiser – were real. Grant also said he couldn’t remember if he viewed a full history of Strandberg’s care, and he never interviewed Strandberg’s mother about the years she spent seeking help for her troubled son. Grant said Strandberg described sitting in his apartment for a long time trying to decide whether to shoot Bergeron with the crossbow while the drill sergeant in his head implored him to act. “I had to do it to obey my commanding officer,” Grant said, quoting Strandberg. Strandberg shot Bergeron in the head, but she did not immediately die. Strandberg then described how he choked the woman first with his hands and then with a belt. “He thought he heard her voice,” Grant said. “The voice said, ‘You’re a nut case.’ ”