- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

RAVENNA, OHIO (AP) - 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.

His 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, but said the defense would address it at a later hearing.

“We do not believe he ultimately will be competent to assist us in proceeding in these matters,” DeCaris said.

Walker has been locked up in the Portage County jail in a holding cell where guards can watch him. The judge continued bond set at $2 million after the Jan. 29 attack.

Asked about Walker’s situation in jail, DeCaris responded, “It is a difficult environment but I think the jail is doing everything they can to deal with his particular issues.”

A regular routine is important for autistic individuals, and jailers have made available to Walker a television where he can watch his favorite game shows. In addition, he gets his favorite potato chips and visitors have been allowed to bring another treat he likes: a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

Both sides waived Walker’s right to attend the arraignment. During his initial court hearing, held by video hookup from jail, Walker rocked his head and made sounds and had to be restrained in a chair and wore a cloth mask to prevent from spitting on deputies. The jail staff blamed his outburst on the changed routine when he was brought to the videoconference area.

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