Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published February 26 2014
Judge orders mental evaluation for Finley woman accused of killing husband
In a separate civil court hearing, state District Judge Steven Marquart also ruled that Sherry Midstokke’s assets, which she estimates at more than $2.3 million after Lyle Midstokke’s death, remain frozen and in the hands of her son, David Midstokke, who lives in his parents’ home.
Her attorney, Blake Hankey, asked for the evaluation as well as a reduction of the $500,000 cash-only bond that is keeping Midstokke, 61, in jail in Fargo pending her trial.
With her assets not available because of the emergency probate petition brought by her son David, Sherry Midstokke can come up with only $4,000, Hankey said in asking for a $40,000 “10 percent” bond. Hankey said Midstokke has lived in Finley all her life, has no criminal record and “substantial ties to the community,” so she poses no threat or risk of fleeing.
But at the status hearing, Steele County State’s Attorney Charles Stock said Midstokke should be kept in jail for now for her own safety.
“We don’t know what her mental state is, and that concerns me,” Stock said. She might have the “capacity to harm herself.”
Marquart agreed with Stock, ordering Midstokke’s bail to remain unchanged. “We can revisit that after her mental health evaluation.”
Marquart ordered Midstokke to be evaluated by medical professionals chosen by her attorney, as well as by doctors at the State Hospital in Jamestown for the prosecution’s case.
That will take two to three months, he said. Criminal hearings, including her arraignment when she can enter a formal plea, can be scheduled after her evaluation, including whether she is competent to stand trial, Marquart said.
For her civil court hearing on the probate issue, Midstokke had no attorney. On the other side, her son David was flanked by attorneys Sara Sorenson of West Fargo and Ross Keller of Hillsboro.
Marquart explained to Midstokke that the state’s “slayer statute” generally “revokes” any interest in assets and property a killer might acquire, via joint ownership or a will, through the death of the victim.
He ruled that his Feb. 6 emergency order, in response to David Midstokke’s petition, remains in effect, naming him personal representative of his father’s estate. It means David Midstokke has access to his parents’ joint bank accounts, safe-deposit boxes and other property, for purposes of tabulating and safekeeping but not to spend assets.
Sherry Midstokke, in her application for a court-appointed attorney in her criminal case, said her assets totaled more than $2.3 million, most of it in 480 acres of farmland Lyle inherited from his family and that they farmed for years.
Because of the probate action freezing her assets, Midstokke was appointed a public defender.
The case has shocked this town of 445 that had not seen a murder in its 117-year history. The fact the case involves a couple nearing retirement who grew up here, he going off to be a medaled Army hero in Vietnam, she the daughter of the town’s police chief of 34 years, makes it all the more incredible, people say.
Lyle worked for a farmer in recent years, Sherry as a certified nursing assistant.
Midstokke called 911 about 7 a.m. Feb. 3, telling deputies she had arrived home from work and found her husband dead in their bedroom.
But by later that afternoon, she told investigators she had killed him using drugs and asphyxiation, according to the court complaint, which said items found at the scene obviously were used to asphyxiate him.
The murder charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
In the first day or two after her arrest, Midstokke’s son David filed the emergency petition in court, asking that he replace his mother as personal representative of his father’s estate so she couldn’t spend any of the assets on her bail or hiring an attorney.
About a dozen townspeople, plus several relatives of Midstokke, attended the short hearing Wednesday, and she smiled wanly and nodded to some as she walked by, wearing orange jail clothes and shackles.
David Wigen came early to the hearing, taking the elevator up to the old-fashioned courtroom on the third floor of the courthouse, one of many here who have good things to say about Lyle Midstokke and no answers for how this happened.
“Lyle was one of my best friends,” said Wigen, who managed the Cenex station in Finley for 34 years. “He worked for me for a couple years. You couldn’t find a better guy.”