HANFORD — The jury trial for Todd Pate continued into its third day Wednesday with testimony about Pate's mental state prior to the killing of his wife, Melanie Pate, and his severe depression after the fact.
Christopher Jackson, an investigator for the Kings County District Attorney’s Office who specializes in computer forensics, discussed data extracted from Todd and Melanie Pate’s cellphones after Melanie Pate was found dead in the couple’s swimming pool on Sept. 2, 2013.
According to the records presented to the jury, the data from Todd Pate’s phone included searches and websites on Aug. 30, 2013, regarding carbon monoxide poisoning and “charcoal burning suicide.”
Data from Aug. 31 included Google searches for “jumping off a cliff,” “10 ways to kill yourself quickly,” committing suicide by jumping in front of a train and suicide using homemade poisons.
The phone was used on Sept. 1 to conduct a Google search for “how to blow up a house.”
Todd Pate’s defense attorney, Melina Benninghoff, asked Jackson whether his analysis of the data extracted from the phone included any searches about strangling or stabbing his wife. Jackson said he did not find any such searches.
Other testimony was given Wednesday by the Pates’ next door neighbor, Monica Mireles.
Mireles said she had known Melanie Pate for several years because both had children who were the same age. She said she moved in next door to the Pates in the 3100 block of Nutmeg Place in 2009 and became close friends with Melanie.
During the spring of 2013, Mireles said she and Melanie began walking together several nights per week in preparation for a 5K walk. Mireles said she was aware that Melanie intended to serve her husband with divorce papers in late August 2013.
The week before Melanie was killed, Mireles said, she saw a man leave the Pate house who she believed to be a process server. She said the man walked back to his car carrying a manila envelope.
Mireles said she was leaving her home to take her daughter to an activity when she saw Todd Pate, who was apparently driving home, make a U-turn when he saw the process server.
Benninghoff questioned how Mireles could have known that Pate’s reaction was due to seeing a man who she believed, but did not know for certain, was a process server. Mireles did not offer any proof that she knew what Pate was thinking when he turned around.
Process server Gus Amos testified Monday that he had tried to serve the papers to Todd Pate twice before he succeeded on the evening of Aug. 30.
Benninghoff asked whether Mireles was aware of Todd Pate’s suspicions that Melanie was having an affair. Mireles said Melanie had told her about it and denied cheating on her husband. Benninghoff asked if Mireles later found out that her friend was lying about having an affair.
“I never found out that was not true,” Mireles said.
On Sept. 2, 2013, Mireles said that she and her boyfriend returned home from a camping trip around 11:50 a.m. As they pulled up to her home, she said she saw Todd and Melanie Pate apparently having an argument in their garage. Mireles said that “the expression on [Melanie Pate’s] face and the history of what was happening” led her to believe she was witnessing a “volatile” argument.
Benninghoff asked why Mireles didn’t go to check on Melanie Pate or call the police if she feared for her friend’s safety.
“I was waiting for Todd to leave,” Mireles said.
Mireles said she had planned to text Melanie after Todd left the house, but she never got the chance to do that. She said she didn’t call the police because her fears were based on “intuition,” not any factual evidence.
Police arrived at the Pates’ home around 12:30 p.m. after Todd Pate called 911 to report that he had killed his wife. Melanie Pate was found dead in the swimming pool with her throat cut.
“Do you feel responsible for Melanie’s death because you didn’t call the police?” Benninghoff said.
“Yeah, I partially do,” Mireles said.
When the trial resumed in the afternoon, Benninghoff asked the court to consider dismissing the first-degree homicide charge against Pate. She claimed prosecutors had given insufficient evidence to show the killing was premeditated.
Benninghoff said on Monday that Pate should have been charged with voluntary manslaughter. State law defines voluntary manslaughter as killing someone “without malice” and during “a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.”
Judge Donna Tarter denied the request, saying there was sufficient evidence to support premeditation.
Benninghoff also asked for permission to call two witnesses who would testify that they were romantically involved with Melanie Pate while she was married.
Tarter also denied that request, saying such testimony would likely confuse the jury.
“It's not relevant whether Mrs. Pate was having an affair or not,” Tarter said.
Continuing the discussion of Todd Pate’s mental state during the crime, the defense called on forensic psychiatrist Howard Terrell, who met with Pate after his arrest to evaluate his competency to stand trial.
During their Sept. 25, 2013, meeting at the Kings County Jail, Terrell said Pate was wearing a jail-issued "anti-suicide garment" and was under close watch by jail staff. Terrell said Pate had poor eye contact and showed a lack of facial expression, which can be signs of a psychotic “break from reality.”
Terrell said Pate believed his wife was still alive due to auditory hallucinations of Melanie saying “bad things” to him. Pate also claimed to have heard voices saying, “Kill yourself,” during the months leading up to the killing.
When pressed for details, Terrell said, Pate said he believed the voice “may be the voice of the devil.” Pate was also reportedly seeing visual hallucinations of shadows.
Pate did not report hearing any voices that told him to kill his wife, Terrell said.
Terrell said he diagnosed Pate with severe major depressive disorder with psychotic features, finding him incompetent to stand trial and recommending antidepressant and antipsychotic medications.
During a second meeting in December 2013, Terrell said, Pate showed “very good improvement.”
Terrell met with Pate again in June 2015 for more than two hours. He said the meeting delved into Pate’s mental state before and during the crime, including his feelings about the looming divorce.
Terrell said Pate’s fear of losing his son, Karter, paralleled the loss of the Todd and Melanie Pate’s first son, who was stillborn about 16 years prior to Melanie Pate’s death.
Benninghoff tried to ask some follow-up questions about Pate’s dead son. Tarter excused the jury briefly to ask Benninghoff about the relevance of additional questions about Pate’s dead son.
“Are you trying to elicit from the doctor that Mr. Pate has had a mental illness for the past 16 years?” Tarter said.
Benninghoff said she wanted to show the jury how that loss had affected Pate. When Benninghoff became argumentative, Tarter said her demeanor to the court was “out of line” and asked her to calm down.
Following a short recess, Benninghoff returned to the courtroom saying Pate was not feeling well and had been crying.
“My client is not in a position to help me help him,” Benninghoff said.
Tarter dismissed the jury early and asked to have a “brief hearing” that was not open to the public.
The trial is scheduled to resume Thursday at 9:30 a.m.