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Jury rejects insanity claim in murder of Melinda Yager

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The 12 jurors and two alternates who listened to weeks of testimony in the trial of Nathan Yager came together on March 20 to deliver a verdict of guilty.

Yager had pleaded not guilty to second degree murder by reason of insanity.

There was never any question that Nathan Yager brutally slashed the throat of his estranged wife, Melinda, in January 2011. The defense conceded that point early in the trial, but attempted to prove Yager was not sane when he committed the crime. Their expert, Dr. Karen Fukutaki, a psychiatrist from the Front Range, testified Yager was in a disassociative state when he committed murder, and was therefore not legally responsible for the act. The district attorney's office countered with an expert who testified that Yager was not severely mentally diseased, that it was "not even a close call."

Dick Nunamaker, a Delta resident who served as jury foreman, explained the thought process behind the guilty verdict after the jury had been released by Judge Steven Schultz last Tuesday afternoon.

"I could sum up the comments of many jurors by saying, 'Although both psychiatrists who testified were highly credible, the overall testimony of Dr. Wortzel appeared to be more compelling with respect to this case as it applies to sanity vs. insanity.' "

Nunamaker said he listened not only to Dr. Wortzel's words, but also paid close attention to his body language.

"Dr. Wortzel, the court-appointed psychiatrist, seemed very confident in his diagnosis," Nunamaker said. "He didn't seem to have any doubts whatsoever and that's kind of important."

No one questioned Dr. Fukutaki's credentials, or her sincerity, Nunamaker said, but she changed her diagnosis after more information came to light. That raised questions for jurors. Nunamaker said she also seemed to be "parroting" comments made by defense attorneys during opening statements, which made him wonder if Fukutaki had been coached.

During deliberations, Nunamaker said it took some time for a couple of jurors to wrap their heads around "reasonable doubt."

There was also a lot of discussion about the legal definition of insanity, "because that's what the whole case hinged on.

"How could someone be sane and commit a crime like that?" Nunamaker wondered. "But there's a very specific legal definition for insanity and that's all you have to go by."

The concept that Yager could be sane before the murder, insane when he produced a knife and cut Melinda's throat, then sane again is still hard to understand, Nunamaker said.

Both the prosecution and defense did a good job, but Nunamaker said the defense didn't have much to work with, other than the psychiatric testimony, and in the end that failed to impress the jurors.

Nunamaker added that he felt every juror gave a hundred percent. They took the trial very seriously; there were no comments about getting it over with.

"It's amazing how important it is to have a diverse group of people like that. We all watched and heard the same things, but everybody comes out with a little different perception of events. It's amazingly important."

Although the experience was extremely stressful, Nunamaker said jurors felt good about the verdict. "We all came out of there feeling like justice had been served. No one was on the fence; there were no second thoughts."

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