HANFORD — Todd Pate, who is accused in the 2013 killing of his wife, Melanie Pate, has entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Pate entered the plea Wednesday for charges of first-degree murder and a special allegation of using knives. Pate previously pleaded not guilty to the charges. His August 2016 trial ended in a hung jury and mistrial after one of the 12 jurors felt the evidence didn’t support the first-degree murder charge.

Pate was previously represented by court-appointed attorney Melina Benninghoff. He has since retained a private attorney, Adam Nelson, of Visalia.

A trial readiness conference has been scheduled for Feb. 21. Nelson has filed a request to postpone the March trial depending on the status of the plea, which requires Pate to submit to psychological evaluations.

Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes said insanity pleas are very rare because of the difficulty of proving the plea to a jury. Fagundes said the new plea simply marks a change in defense strategy.

“It’s unusual because the threshold to be successful is pretty high,” Fagundes said.

Fagundes said a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity means the defendant was insane during the crime and should not be held accountable. Someone who enters such a plea must prove the following:

  • The person’s mental illness prevented him from understanding the “nature and quality” of the act at the time it was committed.
  • If the defendant did understand the act, he did not know what he was doing was wrong.

On Sept. 2, 2013, Pate called 911 around noon to tell dispatchers that he had killed his wife and needed police to pick him up. Officers arrived and found Melanie Pate’s body floating upright in the family’s swimming pool surrounded by a cloud of blood.

Investigators found a ceramic kitchen knife and a lock of blonde hair on the step leading into the pool. Two other bloodied knives were found on the kitchen counter. A trail of blood led from the kitchen to the back door.

Forensic psychiatrist Howard Terrell testified in August that he met with Pate on Sept. 25, 2013, to evaluate his competency to stand trial. Terrell said Pate was on suicide watch at the Kings County Jail and showed physical signs of a psychotic “break from reality.” He said Pate also claimed to be hearing voices and having visual hallucinations.

Terrell said Pate suffered from “memory gaps” about his wife’s death. Pate reportedly recalled saying “Nobody is going to take my son away from me!” before putting his hands around Melanie Pate’s neck. His next memory, Terrell said, was getting out of the swimming pool.

Assistant District Attorney Nick Schuller and Deputy District Attorney Phil Esbenshade will prosecute the case.

The reporter can be reached at 583-2458 or meiman@HanfordSentinel.com.

 

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