It took a jury of 12 less than two hours to convict Nathan Yager of second degree murder in the death of his wife Melinda in January 2010.
Yager had originally pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
Just prior to closing arguments Tuesday morning, the jurors were told there was no longer a question of insanity. Instead, if they determined Yager was guilty, they would then decide whether Melinda's murder was the result of "provoked passion," a determination that would drop the crime from a Class 2 felony to a Class 3 felony.
"The posture of the case has changed a bit," defense attorney Stephan Schweissing told the jurors during closing arguments. Although they would not consider the issue of insanity, Schweissing said the testimony of three psychiatrists could be weighed to conclude if Nathan Yager acted knowingly the morning of Jan. 7.
One of those psychiatrists, Dr. Karen Fukutaki, evaluated Nathan Yager in January 2010. She testified he did not act knowingly, one of the elements required for conviction. On the other hand, Schweissing said, Dr. Richard Astafan and Dr. Hal Wortzel met with Yager months and months after the event. Dr. Astafan put together a report because he was paid to, and then he got stuck driving to Delta to testify. Dr. Wortzel formed his opinion about the defendant before he even spoke to Yager. Both determined he was sane. "Who do you suppose was in the best position to determine Nathan Yager's state of mind at the time of the crime?" he asked.
Schweissing then turned to the question of provoked passion. Testimony proved the Yagers were involved in an extremely contentious divorce. They were arguing about basically everything — money, their house in Paonia, their young daughter, restraining orders. While Nathan Yager changed jobs to minimize contact with his wife, Melinda Yager developed a plan with her friends where she would get Nathan to break her nose.
"Is Melinda Yager the kind of person who would provoke people?" Schweissing asked.
In answer to his own question he reviewed testimony that Melinda got one of the witnesses fired, that she pulled a gun on Nathan Yager in 2009, and that she once entered a restaurant occupied by Nathan Yager, snapped her fingers and ordered him to leave.
On the day of her death, Melinda Yager tracked Nathan down, Schweissing contended. "She had a plan; she knew her actions would provoke Nathan Yager.
"You don't have to believe Ms. Yager intended to be killed," he told the jurors. "It happened fast, and it turned out the way no one expected."
While Schweissing avoided any reference to the murder itself, district attorney Dan Hotsenpiller painted a vivid picture of Melinda's death. The defendant himself provided many of the details during the evaluation by Dr. Fukutaki, Hotsenpiller said. Yager was angry that a court hearing that morning had not gone his way, that the judge found his filing so frivolous she ordered him to pay Melinda's attorney's fees. He told Dr. Fukutaki he was "pretty pissed."
After the hearing he drove to Paonia to check on his house, to see if his "stuff" was still inside — despite a court order prohibiting his entry — and when he left he saw Melinda standing at the back fence with a camera in hand. He ran her down as she was walking away, jumped on her, repeatedly punched her in the head and face, viciously slashed her throat, and left her to bleed to death in the snow.
Since talking with Dr. Fukutaki, Hotsenpiller said the defendant has either claimed he is insane, and therefore not accountable for the act, or that Melinda provoked him, and that he should not be held fully accountable. Yet, by his own admission, he disproved Melinda provoked the vicious attack, Hotsenpiller said.
Pointing to the jury instructions read earlier by Judge Charles Greenacre, Hotsenpiller reminded jurors a provoking act "does not mean or include cumulative provocation built up over time." It refers to an act committed in the "heat of passion," with an insufficient amount of time for the "voice of reason and humanity" to be heard by the defendant.
He urged the jurors to find Yager guilty of second degree murder, with no elements of provoked passion.
Sentencing will take place Feb. 15. DA Hotsenpiller said he will not be available in January due to a trial in Gunnison County which also involves domestic violence and a homicide.