A man accused of killing his wife and shooting the judge who was handling their bitter divorce reached a plea deal Monday, bringing an abrupt end to his trial.
Darren Mack, 46, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and entered an Alford plea to attempted murder in the sniper-style attack on the judge just as the defense was to begin calling witnesses.
Mack was on trial for the June 12, 2006, stabbing death of his estranged wife, Charla, at Mack's townhouse in south Reno. After the killing, authorities said Mack drove to a downtown parking garage and used a high-powered rifle to shoot Washoe Family Court Judge Chuck Weller through the third-floor window of the judge's chambers. The judge survived.
During the brief hearing, Mack apologized for shooting Weller, who sat in the first row behind prosecutors and watched the plea unfold.
"I do understand right now in my state of mind that shooting at the judiciary is not a proper form of political redress," Mack said.
Under an Alford plea, a defendant acknowledges there is enough evidence for a conviction, but does not admit guilt. While Mack admitted to Judge Douglas Herndon that he shot Weller, he invoked the complicated plea concerning his intent.
Mack had earlier pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the attempted murder charge and had said he killed his wife in self-defense.
In exchange for his admissions, prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of life in prison with possible parole after 20 years, though the judge is not bound by that agreement. Mack also faces two to 20 years on the attempted murder charge. Under Nevada law, his sentence automatically will be doubled because a deadly weapon was involved.
In setting a two-day sentencing hearing, Jan. 17-18, the judge said he wanted to allow for statements, and Mack made it clear he wanted to speak.
"There are some very important things to say, and I've remained quiet through this whole thing," Mack said.
After shooting Weller, Mack allegedly fled from Reno and ended up in Mexico, where he surrendered 11 days after the attacks.
"This dark night is over or at least a portion of this dark night is over," Weller said after the hearing.
Eleven jurors spoke with reporters afterward and called the evidence against Mack "overwhelming," though they added that they would have liked to have heard Mack testify.
"It's frustrating that we did not get to hear the defense side of it," said juror Ryan Murdy, 34, of Henderson.
"It would have been a tough, tough job for them to prove that yes, he was insane for that period of time," Murdy said of the defense contention that Mack snapped into a delusional state after killing his estranged wife in self-defense.
"I would have liked to see how they were going to convince us, after all of the material that the state had, that it was an instant snap, unplanned, just a natural reaction," Murdy said.
However, jurors said they could understand how Mack might have chafed at Weller's divorce rulings and his personality.
"When he was a witness, the defense did a fabulous job of getting to see Judge Weller's true colors," Murdy said about cross-examination by David Chesnoff, one of Mack's lawyers.
"You could definitely see how he would run his court," Murdy said. "They proved that yeah, he could be a tyrant when he's in a room and he's in complete control."
"We're saying Weller is a jerk," added Suzanne Lantz, 50, of Las Vegas. "But that doesn't justify Darren's behavior."
If Herndon imposes Mack's sentences consecutively, Mack could face 36 years to life in state prison, according to a Nevada criminal sentencing formula, prosecutor Robert Daskas said. Mack also waived his right to appeal.
"Our goal going into this case was to see Darren Mack convicted of premeditated murder and of attempted murder," Daskas said. "Whether it was by jury verdict or guilty pleas was insignificant to us."
Chesnoff said he was pleased that Mack likely will have a chance to be released on parole at some point.
"This is a tragic circumstance," Chesnoff said. "Mr. Mack wants to express his views on the entire situation unfettered by attacks on him ... that would have happened if and when he would have testified."
Soorya Townley, Charla's mother, said she was pleased with the outcome. She called Mack a "sociopath," who "hypnotized himself into believing he's justified and he's the victim."
"All I can see in my mind is how my daughter was slaughtered like an animal," Townley said.
"Part of me would have liked to have gone the whole way, so there was no chance of him ever getting out," Townley said. "On the other hand ... I'm glad it's over because they won't drag my daughter's name through the mud."
The case had a number of racy subplots. The Macks, a wealthy, attractive couple, reportedly lived a swinger lifestyle, abused drugs and had many well-heeled connections among the city's movers and shakers.
Testimony in the trial began Oct. 24 in Las Vegas, where the trial had been moved after several days of questioning potential jurors in Reno last month. Herndon ruled pretrial publicity would have prevented Mack from receiving a fair hearing in Washoe County without the change of venue.
All Washoe County judges earlier had been recused from hearing the criminal case or any civil suits stemming from it because of concerns of prejudice. Washoe County District Attorney Dick Gammick removed himself because of his long acquaintance with Mack.
Charla Mack filed for divorce in 2005. In court documents, her lawyer said Darren Mack ignored Weller's order to pay her $10,000 a month in temporary alimony. Weller found him in contempt of court, and Mack filed for bankruptcy to avoid paying.
The lawyer also said in documents that Mack continued to live a lavish lifestyle, took frequent vacations with girlfriends and often attended "swinger" parties.
While a fugitive, Mack allegedly called and e-mailed Gammick, a friend and business acquaintance for 20 years. But the trial judge suppressed some of those communications, ruling they were obtained
in an unethical manner because Gammick knew Mack was represented by lawyers at the time.
Associated Press writers Sandra Chereb and Scott Sonner contributed to this report from Reno.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)