HANFORD — Following a deadlocked jury and mistrial Monday, Kings County prosecutors will continue to pursue a first-degree murder homicide against accused killer Todd Pate when his case is retried in October.
The jury deadlocked with 11 jurors favoring the first-degree homicide conviction and one juror favoring a second-degree homicide conviction.
During a pretrial conference Tuesday morning, Pate’s new trial was rescheduled to begin Oct. 24. Madera-based attorney Melina Benninghoff also stepped down as Pate’s court-appointed defense attorney. Pate will now be represented by Visalia attorney Stephen Girardot.
“I had a conflict in Mr. Pate's case and as a result, the court appointed Mr. Girardot,” Benninghoff told The Sentinel in an email.
Girardot served as Pate’s attorney for several months after his arrest in September 2013. He was relieved in March 2014 and replaced by Benninghoff.
Kings County Assistant District Attorney Nick Schuller, who prosecuted the case along with Deputy District Attorney Phil Esbenshade, said the prosecution continues to believe that Pate had the means, motive and opportunity to commit premeditated first-degree homicide when he killed his wife, Melanie Pate, on Sept. 2, 2013.
“Pate had the ability and state of mind to kill willfully and with premeditation and deliberation as required by California law,” Schuller said. “A cold, calculated decision to kill can be formed quickly. Based on the evidence he certainly had time to reflect upon his actions he put into play at the time he took Melanie’s life using multiple weapons.”
Hanford police responded to the Pates’ home in the 3100 block of Nutmeg Place around 12:30 p.m. after Todd Pate called 911 to report that he had killed his wife and needed to be picked up.
Neighbors testified during the trial that they had seen Todd and Melanie Pate having a heated argument in their garage around 11:50 a.m.
Police found Melanie Pate’s body in the backyard swimming pool, with a trail of blood leading from the kitchen to the pool.
Investigators recovered three knives from the Pates’ home that were believed to have been used in the killing. Two of those knives, a serrated kitchen knife and a bread knife, were covered in blood. The third knife, a green ceramic kitchen knife, was found on a step in the pool along with a lock of blonde hair.
The jury could have found Pate guilty of first-degree homicide, second-degree homicide or voluntary manslaughter depending on which charge they felt the evidence best supported. Pate’s attorney, Melina Benninghoff, had asked the jury to find Pate guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
Schuller said the fact that 11 jurors were convinced of Pate’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt reinforces the prosecution’s belief that the evidence was “compelling and clear.”
Schuller said he did not wish to discuss the strategies prosecutors may use in the new trial.
Mark Broughton, a Fresno-based criminal defense attorney with 38 years of experience and extensive experience in trying homicide and manslaughter cases, said there are several degrees of homicide, each with its own range of penalties:
- First-degree homicide is an intentional killing with premeditation and deliberation. By itself, it carries a penalty of 25 years to life in prison. When combined with special circumstances, the sentence can be life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.
- Second-degree homicide is an intentional killing but lacks premeditation. The penalty can be 15 years to life in prison.
- Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional killing without malice, which is a “malignant state of mind,” Broughton said. It carries a sentence of three, six or 11 years in prison.
- Involuntary manslaughter is an unintentional killing with a penalty of probation, 16 months, two years or three years in prison.
Broughton said prosecutors will often accept a plea deal for a voluntary manslaughter charge if a jury is deadlocked 6-6 or if the prosecution has a weak case.
“It’s not uncommon if you’re going to resolve a murder case, to resolve it at a voluntary manslaughter level,” Broughton said. “The main reason is that it gets rid of a life term.”
In the case of an 11-1 split, Broughton said, prosecutors would likely retry the case with the first-degree homicide charge. The holdout juror in the Pate case said she didn’t believe prosecutors had proved Pate’s actions were premeditated.
Broughton, who has no ties to the Pate case, said California law used to require a defendant to have made extensive plans for a killing to be considered premeditated. The law now considers a killing premeditated if the defendant had a brief opportunity to contemplate what they were about to do, he said.
Broughton said that he’s tried cases where a single juror prompted a mistrial, which allowed him to get a plea deal for his client or a reduced charge during the retrial.
“I’ve tried many cases where I’m just looking for that one juror,” Broughton said.