Killer Instinct

After Michael Tate lost all hope of a family life, he found the Devil.

By the third week, the flower arrangements spread throughout the Jefferson County courtroom were in varying states of decay.

It had been a long trial, and a long time coming. Almost three years had passed since the body of Steve Fitzgerald was found in his Westminster garage. In that time, his son, Michael, had aged from seventeen to twenty, and under a plea deal would spend the next six decades in prison.

Michael Tate, Michael Fitzgerald's friend, had been sixteen when 41-year-old Steve Fitzgerald was killed, a juvenile charged as an adult with first-degree murder. On Friday, September 7, the now-nineteen-year-old sat at the defense table playing Solitaire on a laptop computer. Aside from an old black eye, the lanky six-footer's face was pale above his long-sleeved dress shirt. The jury was out, and had been since that Wednesday.

Michael Tate has few family pictures, but he has a mug shot.
Michael Tate has few family pictures, but he has a mug shot.

Periodically, one of Tate's three attorneys — two of them mothers with young children — would sit beside him. At one point, he dropped his head on a lawyer's shoulder, and she wrapped her arm around him. Over the three years that they'd worked on his case, Tate's defense team had become the family he'd never known. His father and older brother are both in prison, and his mother first lost custody of her boys when Michael was three, and then all rights to them before he was six. She wasn't allowed in the courtroom during the trial because she was a potential witness, but she was there to wait for the verdict, as was a woman who'd spent five days as the seven-year-old Tate's mother before she'd had to give up her dream of adopting him because the boy was so disturbed.

Friends and family members of Steve Fitzgerald had sat through the prosecution's case, leaving only when grisly photos of the murder scene were displayed. Although they hadn't listened to Tate's defense, they were back in court for the closing arguments, and now for the verdict.

Several times throughout the afternoon, everyone in the courtroom was ordered to stand as Judge Jane Tidball entered to field jury questions, discuss them with the defense and prosecution teams, then announce her answer and return to chambers. The reporters and attorneys and investigators and deputies started speculating that Tidball, a judge known for getting her trials done on time, was going to keep the jury working late into the night of this final Friday of the three weeks she'd set aside for Michael Tate's trial. Rumor spread through the hallway that she might even hold court on Saturday.

Everyone was eager for the verdict.

If Michael Tate was convicted of first-degree murder, there was no question what the sentence would be: life without parole. In 2006, Colorado legislators had changed the law as it applied to people like Tate, juveniles charged with first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence for adults. But while that change came too late for Tate, juveniles who now commit first-degree murder and are convicted will be eligible for parole after forty years. Steve Fitzgerald was killed before the new law took effect, which meant that Tate would be sentenced under the old guidelines.

Tate had pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, by reason of insanity. A conviction would be a literal life sentence.

Michael Tate was the second son born in as many years to a convicted car thief named John Tate and his girlfriend, Tanja Navant. When Dad went on the run, Tanja was stuck with the kids in a Denver shelter, where workers discovered bruises and "loop marks" from belts or extension cords on Michael and his older brother. Tanja and a boyfriend soon moved with the boys to a trailer in Golden, and the Jefferson County Social Services Department took over the Tate case. Tanja was required to attend parenting classes while the boys were monitored. The county's plan was to keep the kids with their mother, but Tanja failed to show at her classes, and the stories she told to explain new bruises on her sons seemed implausible. The Jefferson County District Attorney's Office obtained a court order to put the boys in foster care.

At their first foster home, Michael and his brother defecated and urinated all over the house and scratched the ivory off the keys of the family's piano. The foster parents couldn't tell for certain which boy was causing the most damage, but both were so out of control that they were removed within three months.

After a second foster placement that lasted just a couple of weeks, the boys were moved into a therapeutic foster home, one in which the parents had children of their own and more training in dealing with troubled youth. While the boys were there, Jeffco attempted another reunification with their mother. Tanja had started taking parenting classes and was slowly earning more visits with her sons: first one per week, then an overnight and then a weekend. But the cops kept getting calls from the neighbors whenever the boys went to visit her at the trailer.

Jeffco stepped back in, and Tanja never visited her boys again after social services asked the court to mandate that all visits be supervised. Her parental rights were terminated altogether in early 1994. Just before his sixth birthday, Michael underwent his first psychiatric hospitalization — which turned into eight months at the Cleo Wallace Center in Colorado Springs. By the time he turned six, Tate was on anti-psychotic medications.

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