Lawyer: Higgs Planned Suicide After Testifying

By  | 

Chaz Higgs planned to exit the living after testifying and "clearing his name" in his murder trial for the death of his wife, former Nevada Controller Kathy Augustine, his lawyer said Wednesday.

Instead, Higgs will face what's certain to be tough questioning from prosecutors Thursday when his trial continues two days after Higgs slit his wrists for the second time since Augustine's death last July.

Higgs wrote in his latest suicide note that he had been planning for about a year to end his life after he had testified, said David Houston, one of his defense lawyers.

"His opinion was that he has cleared his name and it's time to go," Houston told reporters Wednesday. "It wasn't about the trial."

Washoe District Judge Steven Kosach, after hearing from Higgs' defense lawyers in a brief hearing Wednesday, ruled that mental competency was not a concern despite Higgs' attempted suicide early

Houston and co-counsel Alan Baum assured the judge that Higgs, who was not in court, understood the proceedings and was able to assist in his defense - two elements that determine whether a defendant is mentally competent for trial.

"He clearly understands the proceedings, what's happening," Houston told the judge. "He wants the trial to go forward."

Baum agreed, saying, "There is no reason this trial should not proceed."

Lawyers said Higgs was found early Tuesday by family members staying with him at an apartment in Reno during the trial. Higgs had been free on $250,000 bail, but the judge Tuesday revoked his release, saying he would be safer in jail under a suicide watch.

Higgs, 43, a critical care nurse, is charged with killing Augustine with an injection of succinylcholine, a potent muscle relaxant used to immobilize a patient when inserting breathing tubes.

Outside the courtroom Wednesday, Houston said Higgs slashed his wrists, and his bandages cover both wrists and hands like "oven mitts."

Though jurors were not told of the attempted suicide Tuesday before they were dismissed for the day, Houston said the wounds cannot be disguised.

Deputy District Attorney Tom Barb said he's didn't immediately know if the incident would be brought up in testimony, though he asked Houston for a copy of the latest suicide note.

He agreed Higgs' latest attempt to take his life would not jeopardize the trial or any appeals.

"Competency is the issue, not if he's crazy," Barb said on the courthouse steps.

"We're ready to go right now," Barb said of cross-examination of the defendant. "I just want to talk to him."

Higgs called paramedics on July 8, saying Augustine was not breathing and had no pulse. Augustine, 50, died July 11 when she was removed from life support.

Doctors initially thought Augustine suffered a heart attack. Higgs was arrested in September after police said they were tipped to comments Higgs made to another nurse about using succinylcholine to kill a person and FBI toxicology tests found the chemical in Augustine's system.

Higgs pleaded not guilty to murder in December. If convicted, he faces up to life in prison without chance of parole.

In testimony Monday, Higgs said he loved his wife even though he had decided to leave her, and blamed the stress of politics for destroying their marriage.

He denied killing her.

"I didn't do it," he said. "I wouldn't do that."

Prosecutors maintain Higgs is a calculated killer who had the medical skills and access to drugs to get rid of Augustine when their marriage deteriorated.

Higgs first tried to commit suicide three days after Augustine's death. He was found, along with a note, by Augustine's daughter in the couple's Las Vegas home. He was released from the hospital the same day and did not attend his wife's funeral.

That note ended, "P.S. to all: I'm going to see my wife."

At the time of her death, Augustine was campaigning for state treasurer, but without the support of the state Republican Party, which had repudiated her. As state controller, she had been impeached by the Nevada Assembly, convicted by the Senate for using state equipment on her 2002 campaign and censured, but she had not been removed from office.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)