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December 20, 2014

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Reno man who killed wife, shot judge wants retrial

RENO — A Reno man appealing his conviction for murdering his wife and trying to assassinate the judge handling their bitter divorce in 2006 believed he was justified in shooting a "corrupt" judge but worried about being viewed as a "nut-case with a rifle," one of his lawyers wrote in a memo to co-counsel at the time.

Darren Mack also told then-Reno defense lawyer Scott Freeman during a jailhouse meeting five months before his trial any plea deal must not undermine his ability to "get his message out related to the family law corruption," Freeman wrote in the memo to Las Vegas lawyer David Chesnoff on May 21, 2007.

The memo recently was added to exhibits the former wealthy pawn shop owner attached to his latest appeal in U.S. District Court in Reno, claiming he received ineffective counsel and deserves a new trial. Judge Robert Jones agreed on Monday to extend until July 31 the deadline for state prosecutors to respond to the challenge.

Freeman, who now is a Washoe County district judge, was describing Mack's reservations about a defense strategy that would have him plead not guilty by reason of insanity — referred to in the memo as "NGRI" — to attempted murder in the shooting of Family Court Judge Chuck Weller.

"He is concerned about the public perception of NGRI, in that he does not want to be viewed as a 'nut-case' with a rifle," Freeman wrote.

"If he is able to have answers to his satisfaction to this defense, then he is willing to support it because NGRI will accomplish his goal of what he believes to be the 'justifiable' shooting of Weller," he said.

Mack, who maintained he slashed his wife's throat in self-defense and insisted he wanted the case to go to trial, fled to Mexico and was the target of a 10-day manhunt before he turned himself in to Mexican authorities in a deal brokered on the telephone with District Attorney Richard Gammick.

He admitted he shot Weller through his courthouse office window with a high-powered rifle from a parking garage nearly two football fields away, but said he wasn't trying to kill the judge, only send him "a message." He ended up pleading guilty to first-degree murder and attempted murder in November 2007.

He subsequently tried to withdraw the plea, claiming he received ineffective counsel, but the judge refused and he was sentenced to 36 to 60 years in prison on Feb. 8, 2008. The Nevada Supreme Court rejected his appeal in June 2010.

Weller said Wednesday he was not aware of the new filing and wanted to read the memo before deciding whether to comment. Washoe County District Court Administrator Joey Orduna Hastings did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Mack, who claims he paid his previous lawyers $1.2 million, filed his latest appeal on his own behalf in federal court in December. He attached Freeman's letter as an exhibit to a motion Judge Jones conditionally granted in April requesting he be appointed a federal defender.

A second letter was from a psychiatrist who examined Mack expressing his concerns three days before sentencing that Mack had not been competent to accept the plea deal.

Dr. Edward Hyman, scientific director of the Center for Social Research in Berkeley, Calif., told Judge Douglas Herndon he was surprised to hear Mack was going to plead guilty and had reservations about that, but didn't express them to Freeman when Freeman told the doctor his testimony would not be needed at trial.

"Defense attorney Freeman had explained to me at the time of Mr. Mack's agreement to accepting the plea, that the plea was clearly in the defendant's best interest, as Mr. Mack would serve 20 years, the publicity would die down, everyone would forget about the matter and Darren Mack would be a free man," Hyman wrote on Feb. 5, 2008.

Mack says the lawyers repeatedly misled him to believe the plea bargain agreement would lead to his release from prison on parole within 20 years.

"One cannot imagine any pardons board of parole board ... ever paroling somebody or commuting the sentence of one who has admitted to attempting to assassinate a judge," Mack wrote.

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