Nathan Yager — neatly groomed, handsomely dressed — is not the picture of insanity many jurors were expecting when they were summoned to district court last week. Yet defense attorney Stephan Schweissing contends Yager was in a mental condition which rendered him legally insane when he murdered his estranged wife Melinda in January 2011.
Through the process of jury selection early last week, attorneys for both sides provided glimpses of the defense that will be mounted in Yager's trial, which continues this week. Jurors were probed about stress, about whether snapping under pressure is a sign of a mental disease or defect. By the end of the day Oct. 31, 12 jurors and three alternates had been selected and opening arguments were set for Thursday afternoon.
Assistant district attorney Kerri Yoder opened the trial by introducing the jurors to Melinda Tackett Yager, who died shortly after her 35th birthday. Nathan Yager, Yoder stated, ran her down, beat her up and slit her throat numerous times. The Yagers had been involved in a bitter divorce and on the day of Melinda's death — Jan. 7, 2011 — they had been in county court. Judge Sandra Miller denied Nathan's request for a protection order and found his filing so frivolous she ordered him to pay Melinda's attorney's fees.
Instead of returning to his workplace in Delta at the conclusion of the hearing, Nathan drove to the home they formerly occupied in Paonia. He was spotted in that vicinity by a friend of Melinda's, who conveyed that information to Melinda. Melinda, in turn, called Sgt. Shawn Sanchez at Paonia Police Department to alert him to the possibility that Yager was violating a court order preventing him from being on the premises. Melinda had also arrived back in Paonia by that time, and took a photo of Nathan behind the house at 1:01 p.m.
Nathan felt he'd been "screwed over," Yoder told the jurors. He was convinced Melinda, who was in the process of moving from the house, had taken his belongings as well.
Yoder described how the tragedy unfolded, with Melinda's two friends searching in vain for her. Sgt. Sanchez spotted Nathan driving from the scene in such a hurry he sped through a railroad crossing as the crossing arms were coming down.
At 1:10 p.m., Nathan called his mother in South Dakota, telling her he had just killed Melinda. Julie Yager phoned a friend in Delta, who called 911. The information was conveyed to Sgt. Sanchez, who was standing in front of the Yager house on Delta Avenue.
Fearing the worst, Andrea Reedy took off on foot to locate Melinda. Following the railroad tracks, she found the lifeless body of her childhood friend lying in the bloodied snow.
A couple of hours later Nathan surrendered to a police officer in Montrose, a man known to him as a former co-worker at a mine near Paonia.
Yoder pointed to the jury instructions provided by Judge Charles Greenacre — instructions that define insanity as a mental disease or defect that grossly, demonstrably impairs a person's perception or understanding of reality.
Nathan has no psychiatric history, no mental health history, she said. He was able to represent himself in county court the morning of Jan. 7; he called his mother within minutes of the murder. He was not insane on Jan. 7, she stressed.
"What this is, is anger. It's rage . . . this is domestic violence."
Schweissing said the trial is not so much about Melinda's death, although it tugs on the heartstrings, but about passion. He described how tension built between Melinda and Nathan during the short time they were married. Melinda, he said, had learned how to "push and push and push." Nathan began commuting to a mine in Trinidad to minimize contact, and thus lessen tension.
But Melinda did not want to resolve the issues between them, Schweissing said. She wanted them to escalate. "She wanted the money, she wanted the child, she wanted Mr. Yager gone," he told the jurors.
Schweissing contends Melinda and her friends developed a plan where Nathan would hit her and break her nose. "This conflict had been planned, hoped for," he said.
During the trial, jurors will hear from three psychiatrists who will testify to Yager's state of mind. They also heard from Dr. Michael Benziger, the pathologist who conducted Melinda's autopsy. Over objections from the defense, he showed some "admittedly gruesome" photos from the autopsy which illustrated how Melinda suffered "very deep" wounds across the front of her neck, wounds that severed her windpipe and esophagus and nicked the bone protecting the spinal cord. The weapon allegedly wielded by Nathan has never been found, prosecutors say.
The right side of Melinda's face was bruised and swollen, and while those injuries would have dazed or possibly knocked Melinda unconscious, they would not have resulted in death. Melinda's death was due to multiple incised wounds to the anterior neck with massive hemorrhage, Dr. Benziger testified.
Before testimony concluded for the week, Montrose Police Officer Christopher Worthington testified that Nathan seemed "defeated" as he was being transported back to Delta after his arrest. "He was fully aware of where he was," the officer testified. At one point he asked Officer Worthington to stop the car so he could throw up.
The trial resumed Tuesday, Nov. 6, after Judge Greenacre was assured all the jurors had either voted by mail or would have time to stop by the polls before testimony began at 8:30 a.m.blog comments powered by Disqus