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Autistic murder defendant poses challenges

Sky Walker watches recordings of "The Price is Right" over and over again on a TV positioned just outside his jail cell, a calming ritual for the autistic teenager, who is prone to erratic behavior swings when his routine is changed.
Gertrude Steuernagel
Gertrude Steuernagel. Her 18-year-old autistic son, Sky Walker, is charged in her death.AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sky Walker watches recordings of "The Price is Right" over and over again on a TV positioned just outside his jail cell, a calming ritual for the autistic teenager, who is prone to erratic behavior swings when his routine is changed.

He also gets his favorite barbecue potato chips, and visitors have been allowed to bring him McDonald's Happy Meals — an attempt to keep his environment as normal as it can be as he awaits a decision on whether he is competent to stand trial in his mother's fatal beating.

Walker, 18, is charged with murdering his long-doting mother, Gertrude Steuernagel, a professor at Kent State University who once wrote publicly about having to cope with her son's aggressive behavior. She was found unconscious in their kitchen Jan. 29 and died eight days later.

The case has posed special challenges to the justice system from the start; Walker had to wear a face mask at an initial court appearance to prevent him from spitting at deputies.

The case has also worried advocates, like Rory McLean, president of the Autism Society of Greater Cleveland, who fear that Walker's actions — he was found cowering in the basement when sheriff's deputies responded to the home — could be misinterpreted.

Walker, who has a court-appointed guardian, is due to be arraigned Friday on the murder charge, but both sides agreed he did not have to appear in court. He is also charged with assaulting a deputy who investigated the beating. No pleas have yet been entered on his behalf.

To be deemed competent, a defendant would have to understand the charges against him and be able to help in his own defense.

Prosecutors and Walker's attorney declined to discuss the case. But Dr. Phillip Resnick, a psychiatrist who has worked in the Cleveland courts for decades, said interviewers would need to determine whether a defendant knew at the time of such a crime that killing was wrong.

'Wheels on the bus'
Autism is a developmental disability that limits social interaction and communication skills, usually starting before age 3. Walker, for example, has trouble putting words together to express himself. A family friend said he uses words only in a way that his mother could easily interpret, such as saying "wheels on the bus" to indicate he was getting upset.

Those with the disorder can be easily upset by a different routine such as a new food item or schedule change. They might find the rub of clothing upsetting and often take comfort in repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back and forth. The gentle hum of a refrigerator might be maddeningly loud for the autistic.

As many as 30 percent of autistic children display some level of aggressive behavior, said Dr. Max Wiznitzer, who treats autistic children in Cleveland.

A 2005 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law reported on the cases of three autistic defendants charged with murder. Two were sent to prison mental health units; the third was acquitted.

But an autistic man was convicted in 2004 in San Diego of killing a 17-year-old, and a man with a form of autism got a life prison term in Charleston, S.C., for killing a family friend.

"Generally, there is no diagnosis which would make someone categorically not responsible," said Resnick, who has seen hundreds of mental competency claims although few involved autism.

Parenting through difficulties
For his video arraignment on the initial charges, Walker had to be taken from his holding cell, which is being used in place of a regular jail cell so deputies can keep a close watch on him. Seated in a restraint chair and with a cloth mask to prevent him from spitting at guards, he thrashed his head back and forth.

"That's probably because he got out of a routine we've been able to establish for him," said Sheriff's Maj. Dennis Missimi.

Family friend Molly Merryman said she never saw aggressive behavior from Walker during visits he and his mother made to her farm. The adults would make dinner, and Walker would pace a 120-foot circle for hours outdoors, she said.

But as Walker grew older, his behavior appeared to change. Steuernagel hinted at this in a campus newspaper article she wrote a year ago belittling complaints by colleagues on how busy they are.

"Busy? Try spending an evening sitting in a closet with your back to the door trying to hold it shut while your child kicks it in," she wrote.

'Waiting for that day'
Neighbor Donald Toth recalled talking to Steuernagel at curbside several years ago. Walker approached his mother and began pounding her with his fists. Steuernagel excused herself, grabbed her son and took him into the house, Toth said.

Steuernagel kept her cell phone handy and warned students she might have to leave class on short notice to check on her son, who attended high school. But, Merryman said, mother and son shared happy moments. They went to Disney World. They danced, taking turns leading. When he was younger, they went door to door on Halloween.

Still, Steuernagel yearned for a simple conversation with her son.

"I keep waiting for that day," she wrote in the Daily Kent Stater. "In the early days, right after his diagnosis, I was sure it would happen. Now, as Sky has celebrated his 17th birthday, I'm not so sure that will happen."