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Kuester gives insanity plea
Jaren Kuester, 31, faces three counts of first-degree intentional homicide in the deaths of Gary, Chloe and Dean Thoreson. (Times photo: Katjusa Cisar)
DARLINGTON - The Waukesha man charged in the April triple homicide in Wiota Township pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect at a hearing Monday, July 1, after a judge ruled he is competent to stand trial.

By court order, Jaren M. Kuester, 31, was evaluated for competency in June at Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison. A forensic psychologist concluded that Kuester, despite a long history of mental health issues, including hospitalizations, understands the charges against him and is able to assist in his own defense.

Kuester faces three counts of first-degree intentional homicide, as well as charges of burglary and vehicle theft. Police say he broke into a rural home on Philippine Road late April 26, seeking a warm place to sleep after abandoning his SUV in western Green County, stripping off his clothing and hiking alone several miles, apparently because he feared he was being followed.

The next day, he reportedly used a fireplace poker to bludgeon Gary Thoreson, 70, his wife Chloe Thoreson, 66, and his brother Dean Thoreson, 78, as they entered the home. Kuester apparently did not know the three family members, who were longtime farmers in the area.

Kuester took the court by surprise by professing guilt to the charges at a hearing in early June, before his defense attorney stepped in and convinced him to plead not guilty.

The insanity plea Monday for Kuester comes as no surprise, however. His attorney, Assistant State Public Defender Guy Taylor, has previously said he was exploring it as an option. The next step is a forensic psychiatric evaluation of Kuester.

After Monday's hearing, Taylor explained the difference between incompetency and insanity.

"Competency is not a tactical decision. It's where I take off my advocate's hat" and act as an officer of the court, he said.

A competency evaluation examines a defendant's intellectual ability to understand the charges and rationally participate in court proceedings. It does not consider the defendant's state of mind at the time of the alleged crime.

It would be unfair for a trial process to move forward if a defendant is unable to understand what's happening, Taylor said.

By comparison, pleading guilty by reason of insanity takes into account the defendant's mental health during the period when the crime occurred.

If it appears "major mental illness" led to an offense, Taylor said, it is irresponsible for the defense counsel not to investigate that.

Kuester has struggled with mental and behavioral health problems for years, and in the days before the Thoreson murders, Kuester's father expressed concerns about his son's behavior to staff at the Waukesha County Health and Human Services Department.

A trial for Kuester is scheduled to begin Oct. 14. Taylor and prosecutor Kate Findley asked Judge William Foust, the Dane County judge assigned to the case, to bring in a jury from a county outside the Madison media market and as far away as the Green Bay or Twin Cities media markets.

Due to scheduling conflicts among the attorneys, the trial date is scheduled several weeks past the limit for the speedy trial process Kuester's defense team requested.

Kuester acquiesced to pushing back the trial.

"If that's the best you guys can do, then so be it," he said.

"We'd all like to do it sooner," Foust responded, explaining that the scheduling conflicts are unavoidable.