After taking three days to seat the jury, opening arguments were heard Friday morning in the case of Nathan Yager. Yager is charged with second degree murder in the death of his estranged wife Melinda in 2011. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
Yet, district attorney Dan Hotsenpiller said, Yager was acting quite rationally when he parked where his vehicle couldn't be seen, approached Melinda's house from the back, crawled through a doggy door to gain entry, then was caught by Melinda as he was leaving. After he spotted Melinda taking an incriminating photo with her cell phone, he chased her down, struck her so hard on the side of the head she was dazed or on the verge of unconsciousness, then slashed her neck so deeply she was nearly decapitated. As he was fleeing the scene, he had the presence of mind to get rid of the knife, discard the cell phone he'd taken from Melinda and skirt a railroad crossing arm that was dropping, leaving a Paonia police officer on the other side of the tracks. Nathan then called his mother, confessed his crime and through her, arranged to turn himself in at the Montrose Police Department to an officer with whom he was acquainted.
Hostenpiller told the jury this series of actions demonstrates that Nathan Yager was not only capable of the crime, but he knew right from wrong -- a key element of the insanity defense.
Public defender Kori Zaplatel urged the jury to consider Nathan Yager's mental state in the context of a stressful and contested divorce.
"Nathan Yager did kill Melinda Yager, he did, and when he did he was suffering from mental illness." Melinda's death was "terrible and tragic," she continued, "and you will not hear anything different from this side of the room."
She outlined a marriage that was "toxic" from the beginning. The divorce, like the marriage, was not smooth. Arguments over parenting styles and the house in Paonia (owned by Nathan and vacated by Melinda) were ongoing. Exchanges of their young daughter got to the point where they were being recorded by both sides. The divorce was affecting Nathan's work, Zaplatel told the jurors, and he was distracted and depressed. Nathan Yager tried to reach out to the police and to the court for help, but events continued to pile onto his unstable house of cards "and everything came tumbling down."
Expert testimony will come from two psychiatrists, Dr. Karen Fukutaki and Dr. Hal Wortzel. Dr. Fukutaki visited Nathan Yager in April 2011 and determined he doesn't remember stabbing Melinda in the neck because he was in a disassociative state at the time of the murder. Dr. Wortzel, appointed by the court to perform a forensic psychiatric exam, comes to a "very, very different conclusion," in the words of Hotsenpiller.
It will be up to the jury to determine if Yager was in a "culpable mental state" when Melinda was murdered on Jan. 7, 2011. A three-week period has been set aside for the retrial. The first trial was overturned on appeal because the jury wasn't allowed to consider an insanity defense.