DARLINGTON — A Waukesha man accused of murdering three retired Wiota farmers changed his plea to not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect at a hearing Monday after a judge ruled that he was mentally competent to stand trial.
A trial date of Oct. 14 was tentatively set for Jaren Kuester, 31, by Dane County Circuit Court judge William Foust after defense attorneys and prosecutors worked out details of the mental evaluation and the plea change inside the Lafayette County courtroom.
Kuester was charged with three counts of first-degree intentional homicide after police said he used a fireplace poker to bludgeon to death Gary Thoreson, 70; his wife, Chloe Thoreson, 66; and his brother, Dean Thoreson, 76, in April in the town of Wiota home where Gary and Chloe lived.
Foust ruled that Kuester met the criteria for competency, which means he will understand at the time of his trial that he is being tried for a crime and can assist his attorney in his defense.
The ruling was made after a mental evaluation was ordered by Foust following a request from Kuester’s attorney, Guy Taylor.
After Foust’s ruling, Taylor responded by changing Kuester’s plea from not guilty to not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
Unlike the competency issue that dealt with Kuester’s mental status at the time of the trial, an insanity defense will deal with Kuester’s state of mind at the time that the alleged offenses took place.
“The insanity plea is a tactical device,” Taylor said. “That’s a specific plea that is entered which indicates that at the time of the commission of the offense, the defendant was either unable to understand the wrongfulness of their act or were unable to conform their conduct to the requirements of law. That’s a different question than competency.”
Taylor said Kuester fully understands the defense strategy.
“If I didn’t think he grasped it, I would not have proceeded as I did today,” Taylor said. “The defense counsel does not have the authority to enter the plea of insanity without the consent of a competent defendant.”
Foust, appearing by video conference from a courtroom in Madison, said he would appoint psychiatrists from each side to evaluate Kuester and reserved the option of appointing a third doctor if there was no consensus.
Foust, appointed to the case after Taylor sought to replace Lafayette County judge William Johnston, also agreed to requests by Lafayette County District Attorney Katherine Findley and Taylor to seal the competency report done on Kuester.
Foust also agreed to requests from both sides that a jury be selected from outside the Madison media market.
The trial will be held in Lafayette County.
The Oct. 14 trial date does not fall within the 90-day timeframe required by the request for a speedy trial by Kuester’s defense team.
But it is the earliest date available for the judge, defense and prosecution without previous conflicts.
“We have to deal with the reality of coordinating the calendars of some very busy people,” Taylor said.
Foust asked Kuester if he was OK with the delay in the trial.
“I would’ve liked it sooner, but if that’s the best everybody can do, then so be it,” Kuester replied.
Taylor said he expects the trial to last 6-7 days. Kuester also faces charges for burglary and operating a vehicle without the owner’s consent.
Reporter Rob Schultz contributed to this report.