Judge Upholds Pleas Of Darran Mack In Wife Slaying, Judge Shooting

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A judge on Friday denied former Reno pawn shop owner Darren Mack's motion to withdraw his pleas to killing his wife and shooting the judge who handled their divorce.

District Judge Douglas Herndon ruled that Mack accepted the plea deal voluntarily and knew the legal ramifications when he pleaded guilty to murdering his wife and the equivalent of no contest to attempted murder in the shooting of the judge.

"The defendant admitted he killed his wife. He admitted he shot the judge," Herndon said in issuing his decision that Mack was not entitled to a "do-over."

"There was no indication whatsoever that there was any issue with him understanding what we were going through in terms of the plea," he said, adding that Mack acted "intelligently" throughout the case.

"He stopped me on multiple occasions to ask for clarifications on matters or raise issues he wanted assurances on," Herndon said.

William Routsis, Mack's current lawyer, said they would appeal.

A month after entering his pleas in November, Mack fired his two former lawyers and hired Routsis to argue his claims that the previous defense team pressured him into the plea agreement against his wishes.

Mack said he was vulnerable to the pressure because he lacked sleep, proper food and was dehydrated.

But Herndon said Mack never raised those concerns during the trial and that Mack's allegation that he was "a puppet and would have done anything is completely inconsistent with him engaging in the question and answer process with me and raising issues."

Herndon set a sentencing hearing for Feb. 7-8. Under the earlier plea deal, prosecutors had agreed to recommend a sentence of life in prison with the earliest possible parole after 20 years, though the judge is not bound by that agreement.

Mack, 46, was charged with first-degree murder for the stabbing death of his wife, Charla, in June, 2006. From early on, he maintained he acted in self defense.

Authorities said he then drove to a downtown Reno parking garage with a high-powered rifle and shot Family Court Judge Chuck Weller through the window of his third-floor chambers.

Mack fled to Mexico and was the target of a three-week manhunt before he telephoned the Washoe County district attorney and negotiated his surrender.

Extensive pretrial publicity forced the judge to order a rare change of venue from Washoe County to Clark County in Las Vegas.

Mack initially pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to that count, but ended up entering the equivalent of a no-contest plea.

During an extraordinary four-day hearing on the motion to withdraw the plea back at the Washoe County courthouse in Reno, Routsis questioned the previous counsel - David Chesnoff of Las Vegas and Scott Freeman of Reno - about their strategies and tactics.

Special Prosecutor Christopher Lalli was put in the unusual position of being an ally of Chesnoff and Freeman in arguing they defended Mack properly and that the pleas should stand.

Before issuing his ruling, Herndon went on at length about the credentials of Chesnoff and Freeman, with 50 years of legal experience between them.

"These are not wet-behind-the-ears, new lawyers handling their first murder case. They are unquestionably as highly qualified criminal defense attorneys as you're going to hope to have," the judge said.

"Does that mean they can't make mistakes? No. But I don't think they are the kind of people you are going to look at and say they are in over their head," he said.

Mack maintained he stabbed his estranged wife in the garage of his town house after a gun fell out of his pocket, Charla grabbed it, pointed it at him and pulled the trigger of the gun, which misfired.

He argued that his former lawyers didn't do him justice partly because they rebuffed his insistence they go to a landfill to hunt for the gun to help prove his version of the events.

Freeman said Mack told him he disposed of the gun and the dagger in a Dumpster on the edge of downtown Reno, but when he went to look for the Dumpster, it was not there.

Given that he didn't find it, Freeman said he didn't look for it further for fear he'd also discover the dagger, which could be used as evidence against Mack.

Herndon said the search for the gun and knife "were the biggest issue raised by the motion in this hearing."

But the judge said discovery of the gun wouldn't necessarily have benefited Mack.

"To begin with, he admits he is the one who brought both the weapons to this event," Herndon said.

"Then he has to convince a jury that somehow the gun just happened to fall out of his jean jacket and Mrs. Mack picked it up."

Herndon said that Routsis argued that discovery of the knife wouldn't have been a problem because he already admitted he stabbed his wife.

"But having a jury see a murder weapon, something they can see and feel and touch, is a lot different. It's like somebody describing a crime and seeing a video of it," the judge said.