The Case Against Portland's Accused MAX Murderer Will Turn On Key Decisions About Sanity and the Death Penalty

"This case isn't a question of facts," says a veteran prosecutor. "It's a question of mental health."

Jeremy Christian is arraigned on a 15-count indictment in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland on June 7, 2017. (Stephanie Yao Long/Oregonian pool photography)

When accused murderer Jeremy Joseph Christian appears in Multnomah County Circuit Court for a preliminary hearing June 7, he will begin what experts say will be a long process.

"If a murder case goes to trial in a year, that's quick," says former Lane County District Attorney Doug Harcleroad.

At least two major questions hang over the case against Christian, who is accused of fatally stabbing Rick Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche on a Portland MAX train on May 26. The first is Christian's mental health.

"From what I've read, this case isn't a question of facts," says Harcleroad, referring to prosecutors' assertion that TriMet security cameras and cellphone videos captured the killings. "It's a question of mental health."

Laura Graser, a Portland criminal defense attorney who has represented dozens of accused murderers, says the first threshold will be whether Christian is competent to aid and assist in his own defense. "He sure looks crazy to me," says Graser, who is not involved in the case.

Normally, she and Harcleroad say, the prosecution would attempt to get an assessment of the defendant's state of mind in the time period before the killings.

Related: Who radicalized Jeremy Christian? Alt-right extremists rush to distance themselves from the MAX slaying suspect.

If the court finds Christian unable to assist in his defense, proceedings against him would be halted and he would be sent to the Oregon State Hospital until his condition improves.

If he is fit to stand trial, the second big question is whether Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill will seek the death penalty. (Underhill's office declined to comment.)

The DA's office last week charged Christian with aggravated murder, which under Oregon law means the death penalty is an option. Underhill is under no obligation to announce whether he'll seek death until the penalty phase of the trial—after the jury reaches a verdict.

Graser says one clue will be whether prosecutors seek what is called a "death-qualified jury" through a special process in which potential jurors are queried about their views on execution.

Related: Portland double-murder suspect allegedly ranted on tape about stabbing victim—"That's what liberalism gets you."

Graser says the death penalty is ineffective and often misused. Harcleroad, however, says it can be a strong bargaining chip to get defendants to accept a "true life" sentence and waive appeals.

"It's a really powerful tool," Harcleroad says. "It can save an awful lot of time and money and bring closure to victims."

The chart below shows the turning points to watch for as the case plays out.

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