Fargo man could spend life in State Hospital
FARGO -- In a bizarre series of court hearings Friday, a Fargo man accused of stabbing his wife told a judge that the Holy Ghost and Jesus Christ were commanding him to ask for a jury trial.
Minutes later, Henry Leo Deniger Sr. waived his right to a jury trial and agreed to have a bench trial. It lasted less than 20 minutes and ended with the judge finding him not guilty by reason of a lack of criminal responsibility.
Judge Steven McCullough ordered that Deniger be returned to the State Hospital in Jamestown, where he'll be evaluated to determine whether he's mentally ill and whether there's a substantial risk that he might commit another violent offense.
Because the Class AA felony murder charge against Deniger carried a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole, he now faces up to a lifetime commitment at the State Hospital. A court hearing to determine his fate will be held in 90 days, attorneys said.
Before declaring Deniger not guilty, McCullough said the court found that "the acts which would constitute the crime occurred and that Mr. Deniger did them." Both Deniger and prosecutors had stipulated to the facts of the case, the judge said.
Deniger, 51, was accused of fatally stabbing his 52-year-old wife, Kathye Deniger, whose body was found in the couple's south Fargo apartment on March 6, 2012. Police arrested Deniger the next day at a McDonald's restaurant in St. Cloud, Minn., where he allegedly confessed to killing his wife.
Deniger also faced a felony tampering charge for allegedly washing off the knife police believe was used in the stabbing.
The lone witness in Friday's bench trial was forensic psychologist Lynne Sullivan from the State Hospital, who evaluated Deniger multiple times to determine his competency to stand trial and his criminal responsibility.
Sullivan said she diagnosed Deniger with schizo-affective disorder/bipolar type and antisocial personality traits. The latter condition can affect a person's ability to control and understand his conduct, she said.
Sullivan said that in her opinion, Deniger's reported conduct around the time of the alleged offenses "was clearly influenced by his psychosis."
"He does believe, and did believe, and this is a fairly chronic belief of his, that the Holy Ghost and God and a variety of other angels and spirits, Jesus, various forms of Jesus, talk to him and control his behavior or command him to engage in certain behavior that he can't resist," she said.
Prosecutor Cherie Clark, an assistant Cass County state's attorney, said the state hired its own expert psychologist from Florida, who also found Deniger lacked criminal responsibility.
Deniger has been at the State Hospital since September, after McCullough ordered him to spend up to 90 days there until he was fit to proceed with the case. The judge extended Deniger's treatment by another 90 days in December at the joint request of the prosecution and defense.
Sullivan said when she first evaluated Deniger in April 2012, he was "acutely psychotic with paranoid and grandiose delusions, similar to those that he's had for many years."
Deniger's criminal history includes several cases in which his mental competency came into play. In a 2001 carjacking case in Seattle, he was acquitted by reason of insanity and committed to a mental hospital. A harassment charge filed in 2008 in Seattle also was dismissed for reason of incompetency.
'I'm feeling pressured'
Deniger's bench trial almost didn't happen.
The afternoon began with a hearing on his fitness to proceed. Sullivan said Deniger's behavior had "calmed considerably" with medication, and that while he still talked about his delusions, "those are much more under control."
However, she also noted that in recent weeks Deniger had sent letters containing "a great deal of his usual delusional material" to McCullough and the State Hospital's superintendent, threatening to kill them unless he received large sums of money.
Sullivan said she believed Deniger was competent to stand trial, "although it is a very shaky competency." She recommended the court proceedings go "as fast as possible," because the longer they went, the more "cognitive slippage" Deniger would experience.
McCullough found Deniger fit to proceed and moved on to a hearing on a motion to withdraw by Deniger's counsel.
Public defender Gordon Dexheimer said he met with Deniger that morning in jail and that Deniger said he wanted Dexheimer and Nicholas Thornton to continue as his attorneys.
But when McCullough asked Deniger if that was the case, Deniger said the Holy Spirit and Jesus were commanding him to have a jury trial.
"I'm feeling pressured, and actually I'd like more time at the hospital to think about this," Deniger said. "It's too serious."
Deniger said he didn't want to keep his public defenders, but McCullough denied the motion to withdraw.
Deniger then changed his mind about waiving his preliminary hearing, forcing the prosecution to call Fargo Police Detective Mark Voigtschild to testify about the case, including Deniger's alleged confession. McCullough found probable cause for the case to proceed, and Deniger pleaded not guilty to the two charges.
McCullough then took a 15-minute break, and when the parties returned, Deniger agreed to a bench trial.
Thornton declined to comment afterward because the case is pending.
Karena Magnuson, the daughter of Kathye Deniger, said by phone Friday that she was "kind of in shock" after learning of the trial's outcome.
"I'm not the judge. I'm not the doctor. I'm not any of that, so I really don't have any say in what (Deniger's) state is," she said.
"Ninety days from now, I'll know like everybody else," she said.