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Autistic teen pleads not guilty in mom's death

Lawyers for an autistic teenager charged with the fatal beating of his mother entered a not guilty plea on his behalf Friday.
Autism Murder Charge
Gertrude Steuernagel. Her 18-year-old autistic son, Sky Walker, is charged in her death.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lawyers for an autistic teenager charged with the fatal beating of his mother entered a not guilty plea on his behalf Friday.

Sky Walker, 18, who was disruptive at his first court hearing and was kept in a restraint chair and mask to keep him from spitting, did not appear in Portage County Common Pleas Court for the brief arraignment.

His team of three defense attorneys and a lawyer who serves as his guardian entered the plea in the death of 60-year-old Gertrude "Trudy" Steuernagel. The longtime Kent State University political science professor was found beaten in her home in January and died a week later.

Officers sent to her home by co-workers concerned that she hadn't come to work found Walker cowering in the basement. He allegedly kicked a deputy in the head, and a not guilty plea also was entered on that assault charge.

Family members led by the victim's brother, Bill Steuernagel, sat together in court but didn't comment. Steuernagel said before the hearing began that the family was withholding comment until the case is resolved, at the request of attorneys.

Walker's attorneys say Walker can't hold a conversation and thus can't understand the charges or help in his defense. Judge John Enlow, who is handling the case, has ordered exams for competency and mental retardation.

The issue of Walker's competency to stand trial will be handled at a court hearing to be scheduled later.

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.

Gian M. DeCaris, speaking for the defense team, said he couldn't comment in detail on the pending competency issue.

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 South Carolina, for killing a family friend.