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Closing arguments today in Kirkpatrick murder-for-hire trial

FARGO - Gene Kirkpatrick's attorney told jurors when his murder conspiracy trial opened last week that he'd take the stand to defend himself, though he's not required to by law.

FARGO - Gene Kirkpatrick's attorney told jurors when his murder conspiracy trial opened last week that he'd take the stand to defend himself, though he's not required to by law.

The 64-year-old of Jones, Okla., accused of plotting a murder that orphaned his granddaughter, decided to change course Wednesday, as the defense rested after about four hours of testimony - none from Kirkpatrick and mostly a string of character witnesses who described him using the same three words: truthful, honest and law-abiding.

"My opinion is, his word is his bond," said Jerry Brown, a Baptist minister who got to know him as his daughter, Valerie Gattuso, was dying. "If he tells you something, you can go to the bank with it."

Jurors in the Cass County District Court trial will hear attorneys connect the dots in their cases as they deliver closing arguments beginning at 9 a.m. today.

Kirkpatrick was charged with conspiracy to commit both murder and burglary in connection with the Oct. 26, 2009, murder of one-time son-in-law Philip Gattuso in large part due to a police interview in which he said he had talked to handyman Michael Nakvinda about a paid hit on Gattuso.

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In the interview, he said he taped a video of Gattuso's home for Nakvinda, convicted of the murder last year, and paid his handyman $3,000, with the promise of $10,000 more to kill the dentist.

Kirkpatrick later claimed the $3,000 payment was for upcoming work unrelated to the murder. He admits he talked about a murder-for-hire but maintains they did not reach an agreement as the charges allege.

Dr. David Tiller, a psychiatrist from the University of Oklahoma, testified Wednesday that he examined Kirkpatrick four times and found the grandfather so mired in grief he'd meet clinical guidelines for grief-based major depression.

The defense has argued that Kirkpatrick was just "venting" to Nakvinda as well as other people when he talked about a murder-for-hire. Tiller testified violent thoughts such as that are common and are hatched in childhood, citing a book called "Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream," by psychiatrist Robert Simon.

"We're all capable of plotting and planning" about brutal fantasies, he said.

Tiller also said he thinks Kirkpatrick has a need to please authority, an "obsequious" nature made clear in the police interview five days after the killing. Near the end of the two-hour, 48-minute questioning, after he signed a written statement regarding his role in the murder, he said, "Well, good grief, you guys. I feel I like you two guys."

Kirkpatrick told police he was unsettled by Gattuso's parenting skills and upset by how he became distant from Valerie Gattuso - the dentist's wife and daughter of Kirkpatrick - during her 19-month battle to recover from a botched surgery on a valve in her heart. After losing a leg and a last-ditch try at stem cell treatment, Valerie died in March 2009, leaving Gattuso with their 3-year-old girl - a daughter the Kirkpatricks say Valerie wanted them to raise.

Tiller said the insularity of Kirkpatrick's family life - his daughters were for many years home-schooled and had no television most of their youth, for instance - likely made it even more difficult for Kirkpatrick to handle as Valerie "quite literally dies by pieces."

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Assistant Cass County State's Attorney Mark Boening objected to the testimony by Tiller, saying Kirkpatrick's mental state isn't a relevant defense.

"This is a red herring," said Boening, claiming it's no more important than if Kirkpatrick had "psoriasis on his elbow."

Judge Steven Marquart said he allowed the jury to hear from the psychiatrist because it will help them in considering the statement Kirkpatrick gave to police.

The husband and daughter of Kirkpatrick's other daughter, Regan Williams, also testified Wednesday. Both of them said Philip grew apart from Valerie as she was ailing, no longer seeming intimate with her.

Marquart turned down a request by prosecutors to call a rebuttal witness, a counselor who saw Philip, to talk about how crushed he was by Valerie's medical issues and how he felt shamed by his in-laws.

"We left the jury with half the picture," said Ryan Younggren, an assistant state's attorney.

"All the negative stuff about Philip came from your witnesses," the judge said in explaining why the counselor wouldn't qualify as a rebuttal witness.

Jeff Williams, husband of Regan, and other defense witnesses said Kirkpatrick owns an unmarked trailer suitable for hauling a car - a trailer Martin referenced in his opening statements, asking why if Nakvinda and Kirkpatrick had a deal, he didn't use his trailer.

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In his cross-examination of every character witness, seven Wednesday and one last week, Boening asked if it affected their opinions of Kirkpatrick to know he lied twice to police about not knowing anyone with a black pickup - the color of Nakvinda's, although he used to drive a red truck. All of them dismissed it as a misunderstanding.

Boening also asked several character witnesses if Kirkpatrick had talked to them about his issues with Gattuso, given his claim that he was venting to everyone he knows about the dentist. Other than his relatives, none had heard about his complaints in depth.

Brown, the Baptist minister, was asked about a remark in Kirkpatrick's statement in which he said Brown and others prayed "the Lord would do something" to let the 3-year-old be raised in Oklahoma.

Boening asked if it meant that Brown had prayed for the death of Gattuso.

"We don't pray for bad things. We pray for good things," Brown said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535

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