HANFORD — Kings County Superior Court Judge Donna Tarter declared a mistrial Monday after jurors in the case against accused killer Todd Pate deadlocked 11-1.
A new trial has been scheduled to begin Oct. 17 for Pate.
Pate was arrested on Sept. 2, 2013, after he called 911 to report that he had killed his wife and needed someone to come over and pick him up. Police responded to the Pates’ home in the 3100 block of Nutmeg Place and found Melanie Pate dead in the family's swimming pool.
Pate is charged with first-degree homicide and a special circumstance of using knives. His defense attorney, Melina Benninghoff, had asked the jury to acquit Pate on the homicide charge and instead find him guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
Deliberations began Friday for the trial, which began on Aug. 15. The jury reconvened around 8:40 a.m. Monday with Judge Donna Tarter reminding the 12-member jury of their duties to evaluate the evidence and reach a unanimous verdict.
Around 10:50 a.m., Tarter said she had received a communication from the jury that said, “We cannot make a unanimous decision.”
The jury foreperson told Tarter that the jury had voted at least six times since deliberations began Friday, with the most recent vote splitting 11-1.
Tarter asked the jury to be open to re-examining their views or suggesting that other jurors change theirs. She suggested asking different jurors to lead the discussion or using reverse role playing to help present their arguments.
“I am merely suggesting methods,” Tarter said.
Around 2:20 p.m., court reconvened after the jury sent a written communication to Tarter saying, “We cannot come to a unanimous verdict. We cannot agree.”
The jury told Tarter that it had voted four more times since the morning session and remained deadlocked 11-1. Tarter asked each juror if they believed the jury was “hopelessly deadlocked.” Only one of the 12 said they believed they could reach a unanimous verdict.
Pate’s mother, Joan Pate, said she was initially confused by Monday’s outcome and was unsure if she and her husband, Ron Pate, could return to their home in Arizona. Pate’s parents were present for the entire trial.
Joan Pate said she believed the testimony of forensic psychologist Dr. Howard Terrell regarding Todd Pate’s severe depression showed her son was not capable of premeditated murder.
“If the jury really listened, I’m not surprised at what happened,” Joan Pate said.
Pate’s father, Ron Pate, said he believes Benninghoff did a good job in defending his son.
“I’m satisfied with what happened,” he said.
Jury forewoman Sheryl Vierra, of Hanford, told The Sentinel that she was the lone holdout. Vierra said she believed there was insufficient evidence to show that Pate had premeditated the killing.
First-degree homicide involves unlawfully killing another person willfully, deliberately and with premeditation. Voluntary manslaughter involves killing without malice during a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.
“I wasn’t going to change my decision,” Vierra said.
Vierra said the jury was initially split 6-6 on Friday whether to find Pate guilty of first-degree or second-degree homicide. By Monday morning, the split had shifted to 11-1 in favor of the homicide charge.
Vierra said her attempts to facilitate the deliberations devolved into a “free-for-all” as certain jurors tried to sway others to their points of view.
Hanford resident Jeff Smith, who also served on the jury, said he firmly believed the evidence supported the first-degree homicide charge. Smith said he believes each of the jurors did their due diligence and were respectful in their deliberations.
“I thought everyone was able to verbalize their position respectfully,” Smith said. “I don’t see it as a free-for-all.”
Forensic pathologist Burr Hartman, who conducted Melanie Pate’s autopsy, testified last week that Pate had suffered cuts to both sides of her neck and bleeding under her scalp. Hartman said Pate bled to death from a cut on the right side of her neck that severed her right carotid artery and jugular vein.
Former Hanford police detective Cory Mathews, who was the lead investigator on the case, said police found three knives at the scene that were believed to have been used in the crime.
According to witness testimony, Melanie Pate had served her husband with divorce papers on Aug. 30, just days before her death. Benninghoff said the papers proposed allowing Todd Pate to have only 10 percent custody of their son, Karter.
The Pates’ neighbors testified that they had seen Todd and Melanie Pate arguing in their garage around 11:50 a.m.
Other evidence presented at trial showed Pate had written apparent suicide notes to family members days earlier and used his cellphone to do internet research on various methods of suicide.
Todd Pate’s former coworkers from commercial food distributor Tony’s Fine Foods testified that Pate was supposed to cover for a sick employee on the day of the killing. That employee, Tommy Doyel, said he would have been visiting customers on the Central Coast. Doyel said he spoke with Pate on the phone around 9:30 a.m. and learned he had not yet left home.
Before the jury reconvened Monday, Benninghoff asked Tarter to explain a “communication” that the jury submitted to the court Friday afternoon before she dismissed the jury for the weekend. Tarter said Friday that the document would be sealed because it was not in a format that the court recognizes.
“My client is entitled to know what happened on Friday,” Benninghoff said.
Tarter acknowledged Benninghoff's request but did not discuss the document.