WARNING: THIS STORY CONTAINS EXTREMELY GRAPHIC CONTENT: Defense will try to thwart first-degree murder charge for Klamath murder suspect
Accused killer Jarrod Wyatt's defense attorney will take the unusual step of trying to present enough evidence at a pre-trial hearing next week to cap or throw out the murder charge prosecutors are seeking for the brutal slaying.
Wyatt is facing first-degree murder charges for killing his friend Taylor Powell, 21, at a home outside of Klamath on March 21. A Del Norte County judge will determine after the preliminary hearing whether District Attorney Mike Riese presented enough evidence of murder -- and of aggravated mayhem and torture -- to put the case before a jury.
But Wyatt's defense attorney James Fallman will present what is known as an affirmative defense, in which the defense can call its own witnesses in an effort to show that the first-degree murder charge should be reduced to a second-degree charge or be thrown out altogether. Fallman would not say whether he intends to mount an insanity defense, in which the defendant must be shown to be unable to distinguish right from wrong, or to understand the nature of his act.
Wyatt has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Riese said that he could try to exclude the evidence Fallman brings to the preliminary hearing, but may decide not to object and gain insight into Fallman's strategy, which he likely wouldn't otherwise get until 30 days before the trial.
”I want it sooner than later,” Riese said.
According to a statement of probable cause filed with Del Norte County Superior Court, deputies arrived at a Fizer Road residence in Requa during the early morning hours of March 21, after a man reported seeing Wyatt, a 26-year-old mixed martial arts cage fighter, in the living room with Powell's apparently dead body.
The man, Justin Davis, had been there earlier in the day and saw Wyatt acting strangely after drinking “some kind of mushroom tea,” according to the statement. Davis left for Crescent City, but returned later to pick up his dog. Davis arrived to find Wyatt standing in the living room naked and covered with blood, according to the statement. Wyatt told Davis, according to the statement, that he was going to cut out Powell's heart. Davis went to a nearby pay phone to call law enforcement.
A deputy arrived at the residence and reportedly saw Wyatt on the couch with Powell's body, which was covered in blood and had most of its face removed. A large incision in the chest could be seen, and other unspecified body parts had been removed. An eyeball was resting in the middle of the room, according to the statement.
Wyatt allegedly told the deputy that he'd cut Powell's heart out and thrown it into the fire.
Powell's death certificate reads that he died from having his heart removed while he was still alive, causing him to bleed to death. It also lists as significant blunt force trauma to the head and neck, and compression of the neck.
The deputy reported finding blood throughout the house, making the entire residence a crime scene. Large indentations in the sheetrock in the bathroom could be seen, the statement said, which appeared to have been made by the back of someone's head.
What appeared to be wild mushrooms were in the kitchen, the deputy reported. The deputy also discovered a marijuana garden in the house when he went to search for additional victims, the statement reads.
According to the statement, Wyatt was read his Miranda rights and transported to Del Norte County jail, where Wyatt repeatedly said he'd killed his “Taylor.”
The defense strategy of mounting an affirmative defense at the preliminary hearing, say legal experts, can be risky, but it can also be a means to motivate a plea bargain. The defense must show that the majority of its evidence goes to disprove the charge, a higher bar than the prosecution must meet to show there is sufficient probable cause to support the charge.
Law professor Franklin Zimring, who directs the criminal justice research program at University of California at Berkeley Boalt Hall's Earl Warren Legal Institute, said that there doesn't seem to be much doubt over who did what in Wyatt's case.
”The question is criminal responsibility,” Zimring said.
Zimring said that showing one's client was insane at the time of a murder could be a means of showing that a trial is likely to be long and complicated, which can be a motivation to press the prosecution to plea bargain.
On the other hand, the defense presenting evidence at a preliminary hearing can reveal the strategy it intends to pursue at trial -- but months before it otherwise would have to. The defense does not have to turn over its discovery until 30 days before the start of a trial, which in Wyatt's case could be a year or more away.
Stanford Law School Criminal Justice Center Academic Director Robert Weisberg said that the value of the affirmative defense in a case like Wyatt's is not necessarily to prevent the case from going to trial, but rather to persuade the judge to cap the charge at second-degree murder. The defense may try to show that the evidence of premeditation -- a necessary element in many first-degree murder cases -- is substantially lacking, possibly due to a “lack of clarity of consciousness” from using drugs, Weisberg said.
Fallman would not say why he is seeking an affirmative defense, and said he can't comment on Wyatt's current mental state. Fallman said that he's going to exercise all viable plea options, and that he has not been approached with any reasonable plea agreements yet.
In another twist, Justin Davis -- likely a key witness -- was arrested last week at his Crescent City residence near a city administrative building on suspicion of growing marijuana, possessing marijuana for sale, possession of a dangerous weapon and a parole violation.
Both Fallman and Riese said that the arrest would make no difference to their cases.
The preliminary hearing is currently scheduled for May 26.
Posted: 05/20/2010 01:30:25 AM PDT
John Driscoll/The Times-Standard
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