By Jeff Lehr

Globe Staff Writer

Mark Sooter is seeking furloughs from the state mental-health hospital where he has been committed since killing Sarcoxie pastor Marvin Valentine with a shotgun blast to the head seven years ago.

Sooter, 48, appeared Monday at a hearing in Circuit Judge David Dally's courtroom in Joplin. He is seeking the court's approval of proposed furloughs from Fulton State Hospital to spend time with his wife, Cindy Sooter, who purchased a home in Fulton about a month ago.

An attorney for the Missouri Department of Mental Health called a treating psychiatrist, a social worker at the state hospital and Sooter's wife to testify that Sooter has made considerable progress since being sent to the state hospital for a mental evaluation in the fall of 1999.

Theresa Kenney, an assistant prosecutor with the Jasper County prosecutor's office, opposed the motion on grounds that it has been a little less than seven years since Sooter killed Valentine, 55.

At the conclusion of testimony at the hearing, the judge said he would take the request under advisement and rule on it late this week or next week.

Sooter shot Valentine on July 15, 1999, in the doorway of Valentine's parsonage at the Sarcoxie Church of the Nazarene. Sooter reportedly shot Valentine with a 20-gauge shotgun after telling him: "Your time has come."

Sooter had attended Valentine's church a few times, but investigators never established a motive for the slaying.

Sooter's wife and family have always claimed that Sooter was mentally ill at the time and did not know what he was doing. Family members said he had been depressed about losing his job and encountering difficulties in collecting unemployment.

Cindy Sooter testified Monday that her husband became obsessed with helping others and was acting manic in the days preceding the shooting. She said he was going without sleep, and that his behavior reflected religious delusions.

She told the court that she had been trying to get him committed for mental illness for two weeks preceding the shooting but failed because he had not committed any offense and was not willing to submit to treatment.

Sooter eventually was permitted to enter a plea of guilty by reason of mental illness and was committed to the state hospital.

A psychiatrist testified Monday that once Sooter was placed on medications for his mood disorder and delusions, he responded favorably and has continued to steadily improve during his stay in Fulton.

The doctor testified that the furloughs Sooter is seeking are typically weekend passes. Testimony also indicated that he would not be allowed to go within a 100-mile radius of Jasper County while on pass.

A social worker testified that Sooter reached the least restrictive level of treatment at the state hospital three years ago, and that he has been living in an "open-campus" arrangement there for that period of time. His privileges on that level of treatment have included day trips outside the hospital in the community of Fulton, and he has conducted himself both inside and outside the state hospital without any problems, she said.

Too soon?

An assistant prosecutor argued Monday that first-degree murder, the offense to which Mark Sooter pleaded guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, is punishable by life in prison without parole, and that Sooter should not be allowed a form of conditional release this soon after that conviction.

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