By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
The Appeals Court of Oregon has overturned the 2013 murder conviction of Peter Zielinski who was charged with the shooting death of his wife, Lisa, in January 2011.
The court issued the opinion on Wednesday, Sept. 20. Peter Zielinski pleaded guilty to shooting and killing his wife in 2013 and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years, but his plea included the right to appeal.
In the opinion issued by the court, Judge P.J. Armstong wrote that the facts of the case were undisputed. However, by not allowing expert testimony that would have cast Zielinski as being affected extreme emotional disturbance and suffering from anxiety disorder, the lower court had overstepped the intent of the law.
“(The) defendant’s anxiety disorder, as explained in this case, bears a closer resemblance to physical illness or disability than it does to non-clinical personality traits like ill temperament, dishonesty, or stubbornness,” Armstrong wrote.
In the weeks leading up to the murder:
• Peter and Lisa Zielinski’s martial problems begin ratcheting up.
• Lisa tells Peter she
wants a divorce.
• Peter discovers hundreds of text messages between Lisa and a co-worker, including at least one that contradicts a prior claim.
• The Zielinskis attend a marriage counseling session. When the counselor asks Lisa what she hopes to achieve, Lisa responds, “Nothing.”
Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011
Peter discovers email exchanges between Lisa and the co-worker. When confronted, Lisa admits to an affair and says she wants to leave Peter and plan a future with the new love interest. Peter calls the wife of the co-worker and forwards one of the emails to Lisa’s boss and co-workers.
Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011
After a fight, Lisa leaves the couple’s home and Peter claims to have put his gun to his head intending to commit suicide. He says he stopped himself because he didn’t want the couple’s daughter to discover his body.
Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011
(Day of the murder) Peter told the court he was “at his wits end.” Lisa shook her head in disgust when Peter tried to hug her.
He went to get a glass of water and instead went to his closet and pulled out a .40-caliber gun. He found Lisa in the bathroom and shot her in the head. Peter takes the couple’s daughter to her carpool and arrives outside the Keizer Police Department where he uses an emergency phone to contact police
at 7:12 a.m claiming his “wife needed an ambulance.”
Monday, Jan. 31, 2011
Peter is indicted for
the murder of his wife.
Monday, Nov. 18, 2013
After previously pleading not guilty to the crime, Peter changes his plea to guilty with the stipulation that he can appeal.
Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013
Judge Dale Penn sentences Peter to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017
The Oregon Court of Appeals overturns the conviction – saying the court erred when it did not allow expert testimony about Peter’s mental state during the crime – and sends it back to Marion County Circuit Court.
Armstrong suggests that the lower court judge, Judge Dale Penn, erroneously conflated personality traits (like stubbornness, dishonesty, etc.) with mental disorder and that the exclusion of expert testimony on that basis was unfounded.
After his arrest, Zielinski was examined by Dr. Richard Hulteng, a Portland psychologist. Hulteng diagnosed Zielinski with adjustment disorder with depressed mood, anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse along with narcissistic personality traits.
Hulteng stopped short of diagnosing Zielinski with combat-related post traumatic stress disorder, stemming from Zielinski’s experiences in the first Gulf War, and opined that there was no indication that Zielinski was “inherently incapable of controlling himself.”
A second psychologist largely concurred with Hulteng’s evaluation, writing that, at the time of the alleged murder, Zielinski “was experiencing heightened stress, increased despair, and hopeless, catastrophic, and rigid thinking.”
The second psychologist diagnosed Zielinski with anxiety disorder and, alcohol abuse and obsessive-compulsive personality traits.
The state filed a motion to prevent the psychologists from testifying regarding Zielinski’s anxiety, its source and how it manifests. The defense argued that such testimony critical to understanding Zielinski’s situation. It would have provided the opportunity to argue that Zielinski was operating under extreme emotional disturbance (EED), a determination which is left to juries under Oregon law. Judge Dale Penn sided with state attorneys.
In 2013, Zielinski changed his plea from not guilty to guilty with the condition that he could appeal the judge’s decision on the psychological testimony.
Leaving the door open to the EED defense could reduce the crime of murder to first-degree manslaughter. The two carry different minimum sentences under Oregon law. The minimum penalty for murder is 25 years and the minimum for first-degree manslaughter is 10 years.
In addition to conflating issues of disability and personality, Armstrong, the appeals court judge, contended that nothing in Oregon law states that a person’s situation is limited to the events and circumstances leading up to a homicide and that removing the evidence of an anxiety disorder diagnosis “eliminates the objective component of the EED defense.”
Zielinski’s case will now come back to the Marion County Circuit Court. No dates have yet been set for new court appearances. Zielinski remains in prison at Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem.
What happens next?
In 2013, Peter Zielinski pleaded guilty to killing his wife in their Keizer home.
Now that the Appeals Court of Oregon has overturned the verdict, Zielinski can withdraw his plea, said Amy Queen, a spokesperson for the Marion County District Attorney Office.
Zielinski remains in prison while the courts assign a new judge and set dates for the next steps in the process. As of press time Wednesday, Sept. 27, no actions had been scheduled. Queen was unable to speak about case specifics because it has been reopened.
The appellate opinion states that Judge Dale Penn erred when not allowing testimony about Zielinski’s diagnosis with anxiety disorder. Doing so would have permitted a jury to determine whether Zielinski was operating under extreme emotional disturbance. If a jury had found Zielinski to be suffering from EED, it could have considered a conviction for first-degree manslaughter rather than murder.
Under Oregon law, the minimum penalty for murder is a 25-year sentence while the minimum penalty for first-degree manslaughter is 10 years. Zielinski was originally sentenced to life in prison with a possibility for parole after 25 years.