HANFORD — The attorney for accused killer Todd Pate wants to move his upcoming trial out of Kings County, citing extensive media coverage that could potentially influence jurors.
Pate’s attorney Adam Nelson filed a motion for change of venue on March 30. A hearing in the Kings County Superior Court set for Tuesday was rescheduled for April 18.
Deputy District Attorney Phil Esbenshade said the DA’s office will file a response objecting to the change of venue. He declined to comment on the case.
Pate was arrested Sept. 2, 2013, after calling 911 and telling dispatchers he had killed his wife, Melanie Pate. Hanford police officers found Melanie Pate’s body in the family’s swimming pool. He is charged with first-degree murder with a special circumstance of using knives. If convicted, Pate could face life in prison.
Nelson’s motion lists 36 stories published by The Sentinel between Sept. 2, 2013, and Feb. 14, 2017.
“The extent of the coverage is self-evident from the quantity of the articles from this community’s leading newspaper,” the motion says. “Literally, every day of this case’s proceedings are front page news.”
Pate’s first trial, held in August 2016, ended in mistrial after one of the 12 jurors felt the evidence didn’t support the murder charge. Pate changed his plea in February to not guilty by reason of insanity.
According to the California Judicial Council, a change of venue may be allowed if the court believes a defendant can’t get a fair trial in a particular county. Reasons for moving a trial to another county include pretrial publicity, bias and political atmosphere.
Nelson’s motion says The Sentinel’s daily coverage of the first trial, combined with the fact that Pate's sanity was not part of his initial defense, could taint the jury pool for the new trial.
“This is a huge problem for the defense,” Nelson writes. “It is highly probable that a juror might think something to the [effect] that ‘If this was really their defense, why didn’t they bring it up the first time? This is just fancy lawyer tactics brought up because they need to try something different the second time around.’”
Nelson says the insanity plea is important to the case, but the defense’s primary focus is that Pate’s actions constitute voluntary manslaughter, not first-degree murder.
Under California law, voluntary manslaughter is punishable by a prison term of three, six or 11 years.
The March 30 motion says Kings County is a “relatively small rural community.” Additionally, Nelson points to a candlelight vigil and other news coverage as proof that Melanie Pate “did and does maintain a high degree of popularity and prominence in the community.”
“Only by relocating this case to a venue where jurors are unaware that there was an earlier trial with different tactics can we obtain a fair trial,” Nelson wrote.
Jeff Lewis, court executive officer for the Kings County Superior Court, said the court has a jury pool of more than 54,000 people. Lewis said the court’s database of prospective jurors is updated semiannually using data from the DMV and voter registration records.
Nelson is also critical of comments made by Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes in a Feb. 14 Sentinel report about Pate’s insanity plea. Fagundes, who did not comment directly about the Pate cases, said insanity pleas are rare because they can be hard to prove to a jury. He said a defendant changing to an insanity defense is “unusual.”
“This comment is outrageous, wrong, and simply put, prejudicial,” Nelson writes.
A defendant who enters a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity 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.