Rock-Throwing Murder Suspect Plays Insanity Card, Gets Trial Postponed | Westword

Rock-Throwing Murder Defendant Plays Insanity Card, Gets Trial Postponed

"Whether a jury accepts those things as facts is a different question," the judge said. "But the court cannot sit here today and say that it's not relevant."
Alexa Bartell's smashed windshield after she was allegedly targeted by Kwak, Karol-Chik and Koenig on April 19, 2023.
Alexa Bartell's smashed windshield after she was allegedly targeted by Kwak, Karol-Chik and Koenig on April 19, 2023. Jefferson County Sheriff's Office
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In the eyes of Colorado's criminal justice system, the word "insanity" means two different things, with defendants being allowed to cite both common and complex mental illnesses — such as schizophrenia, "mental slowness," post-traumatic stress disorder and even dyslexia — when making an insanity plea or defense.

The family of Alexa Bartell found this out the hard way on Tuesday morning, July 9, after it was revealed in court that the last and only suspect in her murder case, Joseph Koenig, had played the insanity card and gotten a trial postponement because of an Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnosis that two experts recently gave him.

Koenig, age nineteen, was set to go to trial in less than three weeks.

He and two other teens, Zachary Kwak and Nicholas "Mitch" Karol-Chik, were all charged and accused of first-degree murder in connection to Bartell's death in April 2023, which came during a series of road attacks in Jefferson County. Bartell, a twenty-year-old driving on Indiana Street near Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, was killed after a four-to-six-inch rock was thrown through her windshield while the teens were allegedly traveling at a speed of 80 miles per hour.

The trio allegedly hurled landscaping rocks at oncoming cars from a moving vehicle, with at least seven motorists being targeted, according to police.

"The court is well aware that the delay is difficult, is traumatic for victims and for families, and the court does absolutely take that into account," said 1st Judicial District Court Judge Christopher Zenisek. "This is not a decision made lightly. But it must also be noted — and also, pertaining to victim impact considerations — that not allowing the [insanity] more likely than not a proposition at having a trial again, either following appeal or post-conviction litigation. It's just that simple: It's better to do it right the first time."

Koenig's lawyer, Martin Stuart, raised the ADHD defense in a June 27 filing in which he requested that witness testimony be introduced at trial from the mental health experts who evaluated his client. In addition to ADHD, Stuart cited late brain development as another condition that possibly affected Koenig's decision-making on the night of Bartell's death. 
Karol-Chik and Kwak both took plea deals in May that came with reduced sentences. Karol-Chik pleaded guilty on May 15 to felony charges of second-degree murder and an added count of criminal attempt to commit first-degree murder. He's facing a possible maximum sentence of 72 years in prison.

Kwak pleaded guilty on May 10 to three felony charges of first-degree assault, second-degree assault and criminal attempt to commit second-degree assault as part of a plea agreement, and is facing twenty to 32 years behind bars.

Both Kwak and Karol-Chik were originally looking at life in prison if convicted.

They have each accused Koenig, their alleged ringleader, of throwing the rock that killed Bartell, as well as being behind other rock-throwing incidents that were allegedly committed months prior to the group's spree.
Mugshots of the Alexa Bartell rock-throwing suspects Zachary Kwak, Nicholas Karol-Chik and Joseph Koenig.
From left: Rock-throwing suspects Zachary Kwak, Nicholas Karol-Chik and Joseph Koenig.
Jefferson County Sheriff's Office

Judge Zenisek said Tuesday that the timing of Koenig's defense filing was unfortunate but unavoidable.

"Defense counsel articulated the timing, stating it was only upon trial preparation that he became aware of the relevance of this type of evidence that he seeks," he explained. "Specifically, he had consulted with a subject matter expert for extreme indifference and upon those conversations believed that these two experts were necessary."

According to Colorado law, the meaning of insanity is defined by two different prongs.

First, there's the "diseased or defective in mind" side of it, which leads to a defendant being "incapable of distinguishing right from wrong" per the law. This prong calls for a defendant's mental capacity to be measured through societal norms and is not considered a "subjective" standard.

Then there are the people who suffer from a "condition of mind" caused by mental disease or defect, which ultimately prevents a person from forming a culpable mental state that is essential to the crime they're charged with. The law defines "mental disease or defect" as "severely abnormal mental conditions that grossly and demonstrably impair a person's perception of understanding reality," per Zenisek.

In Koenig's case, the judge noted how his legal team could argue that his ADHD and "juvenile brain development" led to an increase in impulsivity, thus decreasing proof of an attitude of universal malice or him knowing he created a grave risk of death.

"Whether a jury accepts those things as facts is a different question," Zenisek said. "But the court cannot sit here today and say that it's not relevant."

Zenisek stated that in the court's view, there are too many examples of cases where similar defenses were deployed, even though ADHD wasn't one of them. He cited Colorado Supreme Court cases from 2004, 2007 and 2012 where defendants successfully used common mental illnesses and "intellectual disabilities" like bipolar disorder, mental slowness and PTSD in their defenses.

One defendant used an assertion of dyslexia, according to Zenisek, to defend a bail bond violation by claiming they had written a date down wrong on their paperwork.

"In short, it's a unique defense with unique facts," Zenisek said of Koenig's ADHD and late brain development claims. "It may seem to contemplate that a defendant simply can play games or raise defenses late in order to disrupt things in order to frustrate people, in order to frustrate the people's case and in order to frustrate and inconvenience and traumatize the victim. I don't find that to be the purpose of what happened here, but I understand that that's a real possible result if there is a continuance of the trial."
click to enlarge woman in red and black checked shirt
Alexa Bartell's was allegedly killed by Zachary Kwak, Nicholas Karol-Chik and Joseph Koenig on April 19, 2023.
Jeffco Sheriff

In closing, the judge ordered a mental evaluation of Koenig in the coming weeks or months, depending on scheduling and available room, at one of the state's Colorado Mental Health Hospital facilities. He said the evaluation will determine whether Koenig "under circumstances evidencing an attitude of universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life" knowingly engaged in conduct that caused a grave risk of death to a person or persons other than himself, and thereby caused the death of Bartell.

"In other words, he must have knowingly engaged in the conduct, creating a grave risk of death to a person or persons," Zenisek clarified.

Under Colorado law, the term "knowingly" — when regarding a result of conduct — means someone is "practically aware" of their conduct and "practically certain" of the result it will cause. Zenisek pointed out how defenses like Koenig's are often raised not so much as a legal defense to the entirety of a charge, but as another "important consideration" for the jury to weigh when deciphering the degrees of culpability that go along with the defendant's state of mind when an alleged crime occurred.

"That's a critical component in any criminal case, and is often an area of focus in litigation," Zenisek said. "So it could make the difference, for instance, between a first-degree kind of conviction or a second-degree kind of conviction. I don't have a crystal ball to know exactly how everything will play out at trial, but certainly this kind of evidence could pertain to that kind of argument. So it's not just about guilty or not guilty, but also about degrees of culpability that [prosecutors] are able to prove."

The next time Koenig will be in court is on August 23 for a review hearing. Kwak and Karol-Chik's sentencing dates were initially scheduled for September 3 and September 10, respectively, but they aren't supposed to happen until after Koenig's trial ends.
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