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.
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.
Unable to find relatives willing to take the Tate boys, Jeffco put them back in foster care while they looked for families who might adopt them.
"The first time I met Michael Tate, he was under a table with his hands over his ears," remembers Alice Johnson, the Jeffco adoption caseworker who tried to find a home for Michael.
Michael seemed much younger than six. He didn't ask any questions and wouldn't speak to anyone. After his foster parents told her that Michael was throwing tantrums, screaming, biting himself and even ripping his hair out of his head, Johnson tried to engage him. But Michael refused to tell her what was bothering him. Then one day while they were riding in her car and Johnson was making small talk, Michael asked why she was so mad at him. It seemed to come from nowhere, and Johnson thought it really odd, because she wasn't angry at all.
Michael started saying other odd things, that people were looking at his privates or down his pants. He threw his backpack at his bus driver's head. He kicked a hole in the wall, and kicked a toilet so hard that he bruised his toes. One day he came home from kindergarten with two dead hamsters in his pocket. No one knew if Michael had killed them, then tucked them away, or if the hamsters had just suffocated.
By the time he was seven, Michael was being assessed for suicidal ideations. Memories from a time when he didn't know how to speak were suddenly overwhelming him. He moved to another foster home near Colorado Springs. That's where Tammy and Dave Wachtl, who were interested in adopting him, first met Michael. Tammy Wachtl took eight hours of parenting classes, researched his history and was ready to quit her job so that when they adopted the boy, she could be a full-time mother.
"When I did the research, the one thing that every single person said was if I could take him, I would take him in a heartbeat. That's just the kind of little boy that he was," Tammy remembers. "He clearly needed 100 percent of a parent's attention."
The Wachtls took Michael to the park and played on the monkey bars. Dave posed for a picture hugging Michael.
"When are you coming back?" Michael asked as they left.
The adoption was under way in July 1995 when Michael's foster parents asked the Wachtls to take the boy for a week so that they could go on vacation. (Those foster parents were subsequently charged with abuse.) At the Wachtls' mountain home, Michael got so excited that he ran smack-dab into a glass window that he thought was open. When Dave took Michael outside to play catch, a ball hit him on the wrist, lightly, and Michael went berserk, screaming like a wounded wild animal for twenty minutes about an injury that hadn't even left a mark.
The Wachtls took Michael to Chuck E. Cheese and a Rockies game, but he kept having fits. At home when he'd throw a tantrum, he was too strong for Tammy to handle. If she couldn't deal with Michael when he was so small, she wondered what she'd do when he got bigger. Then one day when she was driving Michael around, he accused her of looking at his shorts out of the corner of her eye. He started kicking the car's window, hysterical, and tried to jump from the moving vehicle.
It became very evident that he needed a lot more mental-health treatment than we could provide, and my husband brought me down to earth on that," Tammy says. "We would have had to become missionaries to make it work."
Michael was deemed unadoptable and placed in another foster home, where he took to setting fires indoors. He made unfounded accusations of abuse against his new foster mother, bit her breast, and complained that she was hitting him each time she touched him. He began breaking furniture and referring to himself in the third person. He also reported that he had hallucinations of spiders and voices laughing at him.
In January 1996, Michael went to Children's Hospital for two weeks, admitted on a bipolar diagnosis. When he left the hospital, he lasted just one day in his previous foster placement. Back at the hospital for another eleven days, he reported that he heard voices telling him to hurt someone. And at the next facility where he landed, he told a staffer that he'd learned everything that he knew about sex by engaging in the act with his mother. In a subsequent interview, he said that he was forced to watch his mother have sex and that she'd penetrated him digitally and that he did the same to her, as well as to a cat and a dog.
By the time Michael was thirteen, he'd been moved ten more times — from foster homes to treatment facilities to psychiatric hospitals — and his list of diagnoses now included post-traumatic stress disorder, which doctors thought could have been the result of a sexual assault from before he could speak. They also said that Michael was manic, that he had a personality disorder and bipolar disorder with psychotic features. He'd call out names of people who weren't in the room, then freeze up and stare into space, only to break the silence by screaming "Don't kill me!" and "Don't rape me!"
Michael was prescribed medications including anti-psychotics, anti-depressants and anti-seizure meds; he took Valium, Klonopin and lithium. He was irritable, volatile and unable to tolerate frustration. He'd stay awake in restraints all night and still have plenty of energy to burn the next day.
He tried to commit suicide by ingesting cleaning chemicals, by strangling himself with a belt, a sock and his own hands. He jumped out of a second-story window into a snow bank. He reported that he'd been raped by an older boy at one of his placements five years earlier.
And he started talking to Satan.
Michael went from the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan to a residential treatment facility, back to Fort Logan, back to the residential treatment facility, back to Fort Logan and off to two other residential facilities. He pinballed around the system until March 2003, when, at the age of fourteen, he landed in the experimental foster home of David Kadlec, a church-going man with sons of his own.
Kadlec had already had nine foster boys in Chicago and ten in Michigan, gangbanger types who didn't like to follow the rules. And Kadlec had strict rules: Michael would be part of the family, which included going to church on Sundays, or he was not going to be living with the family at all.
"Satan's my lord; I don't go to church," Michael told him. But for a couple of weeks, he played by the rules. He kept his room clean and got ready for school on his own. He played Nintendo and went fishing with the Kadlec boys. And then one day, the family came home from a trip to the mountains. "We had a lot of stuff in the van," Kadlec remembers. "I asked the three boys, 'Before you run off and play Nintendo or whatever, could you help us unload the van?' And Michael stopped and tightened up his fists and said, 'I want to kill you.'"
Even with all the little gangsters Kadlec had dealt with before, he'd never encountered death threats. So he told Michael to write down three things to convince him that he was not a threat to the family, three things Michael would do to make them feel safe.
Michael wrote that, first, he'd get as much porn off the Internet as he could; second, he'd rape his foster mother and one of his foster brothers; and third, he'd kill the whole family. Kadlec searched Michael's room and found a knife under his mattress and another in the closet.
That ended his stay with the Kadlec family.
Michael returned to a residential facility, where he assaulted three staffers. He went back to the state mental institution for a week, then returned to the residential facility for a couple of months.
All told, during the decade between Michael's six and sixteenth birthdays, he moved more than thirty times and was prescribed a long list of medications. But by the age of sixteen, he'd started going off his meds and running away.
Michael was on the run one day in October 2004 when he went into a Boulder bookstore and ran out with a small satanic bible. When he passed a church, he wanted to burn it down. Instead, he turned himself in.
Michael Tate was delivered to the Marilee Center, another residential treatment facility, where he made a new friend: seventeen-year-old Michael Fitzgerald. The two troubled boys shared a love of the Insane Clown Posse and a hatred for institutions.
Kris and Steve Fitzgerald were married in 1986. Raised a Baptist, Kris converted to Catholicism. A year later, she gave birth to their first child, Michael, and the family moved from an apartment into a house in Westminster. Soon a baby girl, Jessica, came along.
As a kid, Michael Fitzgerald played a lot of games and had some problems at school, but Kris attributed those to his impulsiveness. He was a hyper kid with a learning disorder and had been diagnosed as ADHD. His father once found him masturbating with his sister's clothes and another time in front of the house, where the neighbors could see him.
He called his son a curse on the family, Michael Fitzgerald remembers.
Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys were two of Michael's favorite acts, but it also wasn't unusual to hear Christian rock blaring from his room after church on Sundays. The family's strong faith got them through a liver-transplant operation Kris underwent in 2003, the same year that Jessica and her father started taking karate classes together. That's when Michael really started rebelling.
By the time he was a junior at Standley Lake High School, Michael had a girlfriend that he was already calling his fiancée. He was skipping school to spend as much time with her as possible, and his grades were slipping. His parents tried to get him back on track, but Thanksgiving 2003 was rough at the Fitzgerald house.
Michael and his father were in a room away from the rest of the family, shouting, and everyone could hear what they were saying. Michael wanted permission for something, and Steve wasn't giving it. Michael was bigger and tried using his size to intimidate his father, who wasn't about to be intimidated — until Michael crossed the line and threatened to kill the whole family.
Michael turned seventeen the following March, and his birthday celebration was another disaster. Kris grounded him, then had to go back to the hospital because her body was rejecting the liver transplant. That left Steve to deal with their son, who snuck out to see his girlfriend. When he came back home the next morning, Steve told him to shower and get ready for school while he took Jessica to a church youth group.
Steve returned to find that Michael had tried to barricade himself in the house. Steve managed to edge his hand in the door, and it suddenly sprang open and cut Michael above the eye, Kris says. The police were called. Steve was arrested for cruelty toward a child, pleaded guilty to the charge and received a deferred judgment. Michael was sent to Family Tree Gemini House, a youth residential shelter in Lakewood.
When Kris got out of the hospital, she was optimistic that her son could soon return home. She was cleaning his room in anticipation when she found a bag of white powder. At first she thought he might be selling drugs, but the powder turned out to be his medication. According to police records, Michael was crushing the pills and saving them to put in the family's orange juice: He wanted to poison his parents and sister.
After just a week at Gemini, Michael ran away to be with his girlfriend. He was caught, then ran again and was sent to a different facility. Kris remembers that her son went through nine placements in the summer of 2004. By that October, he was at the Marilee Center.
"There was no other place to place me," he remembers. "No other group homes would take me in because I kept running, because I wanted to go home."
Michael Fitzgerald was eating lunch in the Marilee cafeteria when Michael Tate came over and they started talking about "death rap," killer clowns, ICP gangs and animal sacrifices.
"I just like the music, I told him," Michael Fitzgerald remembers.
Michael Tate liked it, too.
Fitzgerald told Tate that he also liked skateboarding and had been removed from his home. When he asked Tate about his hobbies, Tate didn't respond — although he did mention that he was into Satan.
At Marilee, the two Michaels kept finding themselves in the same sessions and classes.
Then Fitzgerald ran. He stayed in a nearby apartment building the first night and was walking around some soccer fields near Marilee the next night when he heard someone call his name. Three boys started coming towards him; one was Tate. The boys ran across the field to a girls' facility, where four girls joined them. Together, the eight ran to a gas station and started planning. Five of the kids took off in a car, leaving Fitzgerald, Tate and a girl named Liz behind. The three of them returned to the apartment building and slept in a laundry room.
The next morning, Fitzgerald sold a CD player that he'd stolen and got enough money for some food and bus tickets to Westminster, where he knew of a trailer where they could stay. But they'd only been in the trailer an hour when they noticed a car outside and thought it was a cop, so they split. Tate claimed he had a friend in the neighborhood and wandered around with Fitzgerald and Liz in tow for about a half-hour, then finally declared that he couldn't find his friend's house. So Fitzgerald panhandled some money. He was good at that. He'd ask people for leftover change for a hamburger, often getting up to a dollar. He got enough this time to buy three bus tickets to Boulder, where they went to a parking garage Fitzgerald had stayed in before with some homeless people.
The place was empty, and they slept there. The next morning, they went to a grocery store and stole drinks and cake frosting for breakfast.
Soon Tate and Fitzgerald met another runaway boy and ditched Liz, even though Fitzgerald says that Liz was Tate's girl at some point during their run. They fell in with a dude named Spike who let them use the shower in his house and sleep in his shed, where they had a TV and a queen-sized bed. They smoked weed, went to a University of Colorado party and hung out on the Pearl Street Mall. They begged, stole and got a day's work posting campaign posters for $50. Tate pissed off their new host by stealing a flashlight, a buck knife and the key to the shed, but he gave it all back when Spike threatened to return him to the group home. Then everything was cool again.
On Halloween, all the kids who'd been hanging around Spike's house went to a party — all except for Tate, who said he wasn't feeling well. Agitated, he stayed in the shed alone — but not for long. Lucifer or Satan soon joined him, and as the voices commanded him, Tate stripped off his shirt and beat himself with a bullwhip. He drew pentagrams on his torso and thought that he was solidifying a pact with Satan to take his soul. Finally he collapsed, exhausted, only to be awakened by the kids coming back from the party.
Tate told Fitzgerald that he had been talking to Satan.
A few days later, they decided to leave Boulder. Fitzgerald claimed that his girlfriend was pregnant, so he and Tate broke into Spike's house and stole money, cigarettes, a DVD player and a Harry Potter movie. Spike had already given Tate a knife, but he grabbed two more from the kitchen, as well as Spike's class ring and some backpacks for their loot. The Michaels took a bus back to Westminster, where they returned to the trailer. It was cold that night, so they made a fire on a plate inside the trailer and went to bed. But by morning the fire had spread, so they left to go visit Fitzgerald's girlfriend. At some point, Tate told her that "it would be cool to kill someone." That night, they broke into a vacant building at the old La Petite Academy daycare, not far from where Fitzgerald had gone to high school.
In the parking lot outside was a semi with keys in the door. The two boys went in and took a TV, some movies and a heater. Then they went up to La Petite's attic and watched the movies, while the truck driver walked around looking for his stolen stuff.
The next day they tried to shoplift some groceries, but they couldn't shake the grocery-store clerk who was following them around. So they walked to a small building that might once have been a church and was still packed with religious items. Fitzgerald kicked in a window and they found a fridge full of food in the basement. They stayed there that night, eating and trashing the place, throwing paint everywhere and carving pentagrams in the walls. Tate defecated on a Bible.
November 7, 2004, was a Sunday, and Fitzgerald knew that his family's home would be empty because his parents and sister would be at church. They walked over, and Fitzgerald broke a window with his shoulder. They went inside, and Tate put on some yellow dishwashing gloves so that he wouldn't leave fingerprints. Fitzgerald got a pair of scissors and cut the family's phone lines — at Tate's suggestion, he says. They grabbed a couple of bags from the closet by the front door and headed to Fitzgerald's room.
They grabbed Kris Fitzgerald's laptop computer, a Nintendo GameCube, games, CDs, CD players, a PlayStation 2, DVDs, Steve's Nintendo Game Boy, Jessica's cell phone and a phone from the living room. They also snagged headphones, batteries, flashlights and a pair of pink speakers.
Tate said that he wanted to stay in the house until his family came home, then tie everyone up and murder them, Fitzgerald says.
But when Fitzgerald went for his skateboard, Tate said to leave it behind because otherwise it would be obvious who'd robbed the house. The boys returned to La Petite with their loot.
At least one of the culprits was still obvious to the Fitzgeralds, though, and as soon as they arrived home, they called the police. Steve repaired the phone lines, boarded up the window that he knew his son had broken, bought an alarm system for the home and went to his Sunday-night shift.
"Don't worry," he told Kris when he got home from work the next morning. "Michael would never hurt us."
The boys came back that morning. Fitzgerald said he wanted to break in again and get some clothes. On the walk over, Tate hurt his foot, then smoked some weed — to help with the pain, he said.
Since it was Monday, Fitzgerald said the house would probably be empty. He looked under the garage door to see if there was a car inside, but it was too dark to tell. They used a pocketknife to take the board off the window they'd broken the day before, then quietly put the board down and climbed through the window. Fitzgerald told Tate to cut the phone lines again and he did, wearing the same yellow gloves. He also grabbed two knives from the kitchen. They tiptoed up the stairs so they wouldn't creak.
From Michael's room, Tate noticed Steve Fitzgerald sleeping in the master bedroom across the hall.
The boys decided to steal the family's SUV and leave the state. Fitzgerald took off his shoes, socks and baggy pants so that he wouldn't make any noise, then walked into the master bedroom to get the car keys. Tate followed. He still had the knives.
Steve Fitzgerald woke up and jumped up on his bed. "Get the fuck out of my house," he shouted at Tate. He told his son to stay there so that he could talk to him, but Tate told Michael Fitzgerald to get the keys and his dad's wallet. "Get the fuck out of my house," Steve repeated.
Tate was still by the bedroom door and Steve still standing on the bed when Michael grabbed the keys and the wallet. He walked past Tate to his room, got his clothes and went down to the garage. Tate and Steve followed. Michael Fitzgerald was standing there in his boxer shorts, his socks and pants balled up in one hand, struggling to open the passenger door of the family's gold Hyundai Santa Fe with the wrong key. As Tate headed over to him, Steve grabbed his daughter's Razor scooter and struck Tate with it.
As Michael Fitzgerald tells it, Tate now stabbed Steve — so hard that both his ribs and the knife broke. It went in deeper than the length of its blade. Steve managed to push a button to open the garage door, but Michael, standing on the opposite side of the garage, pushed another button to close it — three times. He says he grabbed a post-hole digger and threw it at his father, hitting him in the stomach before Steve picked it up to use it as a weapon against Tate. But then Tate grabbed a shovel and smacked Steve in the face, followed by another blow to the head.
"I started seeing blood coming out of his mouth, and he was shaking real violently and then he stopped," Michael Fitzgerald says of his father's last moments.
The two Michaels moved a couple of garbage cans in front of the body so that they could open the garage door and take the car without anyone seeing the corpse. Then they got in the Hyundai, but they couldn't get the parking brake off, and neither of them knew how to drive, anyway, so they abandoned the car idea.
Michael Fitzgerald went back to finish packing. He was crying, and grabbed some family photos. Tate went to the kitchen, where he took a quart of cookie-dough ice cream.
They decided to trash the place so that the crime would look like a random burglary. They threw Steve Fitzgerald's credit cards all over the hallway and emptied a jar of pennies on the floor of the master bedroom. Jessica had cleaned out her piggy bank in anticipation of her big brother coming back, so they wrecked her room. Tate took Steve's Knights of Columbus ring and his rosaries, and grabbed Kris's cross and chain as well as her liver medication, so that he could kill himself with an overdose if he got caught. The boys changed their bloody clothes and went out the broken window, ditching a kitchen knife in a sewer outside.
They hid out for about fifteen minutes, then went to a nearby grocery store for milk and cookies, Cap'n Crunch, Lucky Charms, crackers, yogurt, chips and pop, and rolled a packed grocery cart all the way back to La Petite. There was a cop car out front.
A realtor had reported that someone had broken into the building and left several items inside, including electronics, knives and food. The Michaels left while the cops loaded up the squad car's trunk with their stuff.
A couple of hours later, they returned to La Petite with their second load of loot and the groceries. Then the boys split up. Fitzgerald went to see his girlfriend. He told her that his father was dead from a car accident. Then he told her about the murder.
It was Steve Fitzgerald's turn to pick up Jessica and some neighborhood kids from school. When he didn't show, Jessica called the house and got no answer. She didn't reach voice mail, either. She called her father's cell. Finally, she arranged another ride and found the trashed house. She saw her trashed room. She ran around, hysterical, but did not see her father lying in a pool of blood on the concrete floor of the garage, his blue pajamas stained mostly red, his face smashed beyond recognition.
"Dad!" she called out, frantic.
Jessica ran to a neighbor's house and banged on the door, begging for someone to call the police. They did, and the Westminster cops had just located the body in the garage when Kris Fitzgerald returned from work.
Meanwhile, the realtor had returned to La Petite and discovered that someone had broken in again, leaving another load of stuff, including sodas, Cheetos, Lucky Charms and crackers, CDs and a CD player, jewelry, photos and medication issued to Kris Fitzgerald. An officer responded and noticed a suspicious character in headphones across the street. He investigated, identified Michael Fitzgerald and arrested him.Some time that night, Tate returned to La Petite and slept in the attic. He was arrested there the next morning.
Both boys were charged as adults, with first-degree murder and assorted other crimes.
By December 2004, Michael Tate was locked up in Mount View Detention Facility. He told a younger boy there that he'd been robbing Steve Fitzgerald's house and trying to steal his car when the man had attacked him with a scooter. Tate told the boy that he'd struck him over the head with a shovel.
Tate told the boy plenty of other things, too. He said that he knew of a place in the mountains where crazy, invisible elves kill people. He said he got a rush of power and energy each time the Devil put his hand on his back.
Michael Fitzgerald also was talking, first to jail investigators, falsely claiming that he'd been raped in hopes of eliciting sympathy and getting the murder charges dropped. Then he talked to prosecutors and struck a deal: In exchange for a 62-year sentence for second-degree murder and burglary, he would testify against Tate.
On August 20, 2007, Michael Tate finally went on trial for the first-degree murder of Steve Fitzgerald, a murder committed when he was sixteen.
"This is the knife that the defendant used to kill Steven Fitzgerald," Deputy District Attorney Jacque Russell told the jury, holding the blade in one hand and the handle in the other. "And this is the shovel that this defendant used to bludgeon Steven Fitzgerald as he lay on the ground bleeding to death."
Defense attorney Maggie Baker told the jury about the 28 places where Michael Tate had lived in thirteen years, placements that started when he was just three. "Michael Tate's memory is not accurate, because he is literally out of his mind," she warned the jury.
Tate's faulty memory was augmented by twenty binders full of mental-health records, plus 4,500 pages of social-service records documenting much of his life between his first hospitalization at the age of five and his last at fifteen. The files were full of tales of bizarre and grotesque behavior, aggressive sexual behavior and suicide attempts, one in which the boy choked himself unconscious. Baker told the jurors that it would be hard to listen to this history.
The prosecution's first witness was Jessica Fitzgerald, who should have been at her first day of school instead of in court, testifying about the day her father was murdered. Jessica was followed by Steve's widow, Kris, who was followed by the realtor who was handling La Petite, the old daycare facility where the Michaels had hidden out. Then came a parade of Westminster cops and juvenile delinquents who talked about what Tate had said while he was awaiting trial.
Day four of the trial started dramatically, when Michael Fitzgerald tried to revoke his plea. But by that afternoon, he was on the stand.
"Did you kill your father, Steven Fitzgerald?" Chief Deputy District Attorney Bob Weiner asked.
"No," Michael responded.
"He is in the courtroom."
"Could you please identify him?"
"He is in this courtroom."
"Where is he seated, and what is he wearing?"
"He is wearing a white shirt. His name is Michael Tate."
"Why did you plead guilty?" Weiner asked.
"Because I threw a post-hole digger at my dad."
On the prosecution's cue, Michael Fitzgerald told his version of the story — from first meeting Tate and talking about the Insane Clown Posse, to going on the run, to the murder.
"I started hearing my voices, and I picked up a post-hole digger and threw it at my dad," he repeated, in a monotone.
On day six, Tate was shackled for reasons not made public as psychologists, psychiatrists, treatment providers and counselors all offered their opinions as to his mental condition.
"My conclusion was that Michael Tate was legally sane at the time of this offense," said David Johnson, a forensic psychiatrist who'd interviewed Tate at the state's mental facility in Pueblo. Although he testified that Tate may have been the only juvenile he'd evaluated in over twenty years, he'd interviewed him on six occasions for a total of about seven hours — double the amount of time he normally allocates to evaluations.
Tate had been diagnosed with an array of mental illnesses ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to bipolar disorder, Johnson noted, citing the "amazing record in terms of diagnoses and medications" that he'd had received over the years, including five different anti-depressants, six different anti-psychotic prescriptions and two sedatives, none of which had made a consistent improvement in his behavior or mood for any significant amount of time, and none of which Tate was on at the time of the murder.
We can't just assume that everything that is written about him has some kind of truth to it," Johnson told the jury. "But the bottom line is, nobody has been able to pin down what exactly is wrong with this kid."
For example, did Tate really see the spider hallucinations he'd reported to specialists over the years? And if he did, were they signs of a psychosis, or a side effect of one of the many medications that Tate was on? Johnson said he also wasn't convinced that Tate really saw Satan in that Boulder shed. He could have made it up, or the vision may have been induced by the joint that he'd smoked a half hour before, which might have been laced with angel dust or cocaine.
Johnson did acknowledge that Tate had a very disturbed history, but said he wasn't convinced that the boy was abused. In fact, he added, if anyone had been abused, it was the families who took him in. And while some of Tate's behaviors — the suicidal tendencies and the dead hamsters — did seem to be symptomatic of psychosis, most of what he'd exhibited over the years more accurately classified him as afflicted with childhood conduct disorder, which Johnson defined as a pattern of irresponsible behaviors in which the rights of other people are violated.
That condition is marked by fifteen behavioral categories. The prosecution ran Johnson through the list; all but three applied to Tate. Although childhood conduct disorder doesn't necessarily rule out additional conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Johnson said that Tate wasn't afflicted by either of those at the time of the murder. And childhood conduct disorder wasn't enough to support a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. Tate manipulated the system to get what he wants, Johnson testified — and what he wants is to stay out of prison.
The jurors had a question for Johnson: How does one go about constructing a professional opinion as to the sanity of someone during the commission of a crime if the evaluation doesn't occur until months or years later?
"It's a hard job," Johnson said, noting that you need to look at as much information as possible, including witness and police reports, social services records — "the whole ball of wax." Previously, though, Johnson had testified that he did not feel the need to get more information beyond that revealed by Tate in his interviews and in the 9,000 pages of documentation provided by the defense and prosecution — which he acknowledged that he had not read entirely.
The defense opened its case with Heather Beck, a mental-health worker whose interactions with Tate dated back to 1998, when the boy was ten. She testified that Tate was a loner, an expressionless kid who never seemed able to put any kind of plan into effect, never had friends.
Tate's body shook as he listened to Beck.
Then the defense called John Fitzgerald, Steve's brother. He testified that on at least two occasions, Michael Fitzgerald had threatened to murder his family — long before he'd ever met Michael Tate.
The next day, the jury heard more of Tate's horrifying early life. They learned that he was too young to speak when he started to display sexually aggressive behaviors toward others, an indication that he had been sexually molested. At the age of eight, he was hospitalized for banging his head. At twelve, he tried to kill himself by ingesting household cleaner.
On day ten, John Hardy, a licensed child psychologist, offered the jury his opinion of Tate's state of mind on the day of the murder. "Based upon Michael's history, I would predict that any time he is severely stressed, there would be a reasonable chance that he would have some kind of psychotic reaction," he testified. "His grasp on reality was very much slipping in the bedroom, but his ability to determine right from wrong was certainly gone by the time he was struck with the scooter in the garage."
Tate had told him he'd seen a demon lurking outside of Steve's bedroom window, that he'd seen red in the garage, and that after the murder he'd seen the Archangel and Satan fighting over Steve Fitzgerald's soul.
"'Psychotic,' 'delusional,' 'bizarre' — those are the words that you all have heard over and over in the past weeks of testimony regarding Michael Tate," defense attorney Shawna Geiger told the jury in her closing argument. "He is one of the sickest kids these doctors have ever seen. Michael Tate was fragile, broken and pieced back together in a way that never made sense."
On an overhead screen, she showed the names of 28 mental-health professionals who'd found Tate suffering from significant psychiatric problems — all lined up against Johnson, the state's star witness on the issue of Tate's sanity. "Not one of the professionals described him as normal, not one of the professionals can point to a time when Michael was well," Geiger said. "Dr. Johnson chose to ignore or discount every professional in those twenty volumes of records in order to endorse his own opinion."
Her next display was a PowerPoint presentation of Tate as a boy (they could find no family photos of him after he turned three). Geiger described him as a kid who couldn't follow instructions past one or two steps — which is all that Michael Fitzgerald would have needed to get someone else to do his dirty work.
"Michael Tate had nothing to pull him back to reality," she said. "He listened to the voices; he saw red." Geiger pleaded with the jury to find her client not guilty so that he would be sent to a psychiatric institution — not to prison, and definitely not back into the community.
But prosecutor Michelle Cantin got to have the last word.
"He liked satanism because he liked the evil," she told the jury. "Michael Tate wants you to put him in the state hospital, the same place that has determined that he is not insane, the same place that said that he is sane. Steven Fitzgerald does not have a voice in this courtroom. Steven Fitzgerald met the defendant one time — one time — and at the end, Steven Fitzgerald lay dead in his own garage. Steven Fitzgerald, as he lay dying on the ground on his back, was bludgeoned by the defendant five times in his face because the defendant is full of anger and hatred.
"He said he hates people. Maybe he has had an unfortunate life, and he can hate anyone he wants, but that does not excuse what he did."
For the first time in two and a half weeks of trial, after hearing close to fifty witnesses talk about his life and Steven Fitzgerald's death but never testifying himself, Michael Tate finally started crying.
During the trial, the jurors had been reminded not to read any coverage of the case. But other events kept echoing through the courtroom. While Johnson was on the stand, a CU freshman was stabbed on campus by a man who'd gotten off on an earlier charge with a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge asked the jury if anyone had heard about the incident, and those jurors had promised it would not affect their judgment. A day later, Governor Bill Ritter established a seven-member clemency board to review clemency petitions filed by people sentenced as adults for crimes that they had committed as juveniles. Clemency is the only way that Michael Fitzgerald could possibly get out of jail before his 62-year sentence expires. And if the jury convicted Michael Tate of first-degree murder, clemency might be the only way he could ever hope to see daylight.
But the jurors were not only instructed to ignore events outside the courtroom; the judge also told them that they should not take into account the duration of any possible sentences. So they weren't to consider the fact that if Michael Tate were convicted of first-degree murder, he'd automatically go to prison for life.
The jurors, ten women and two men, deliberated for about 28 hours. Then, on the afternoon of Monday, September 10, they announced that they'd reached a verdict.
It was after 5 p.m. when the jury was finally reseated in the wooden jury box.
Tate had been charged with a long list of crimes, including conspiracy to commit murder in the first degree, first- and second-degree burglary, criminal trespass, theft, criminal mischief and attempted aggravated motor vehicle theft. At the top of the list was first-degree murder. On that charge, the jury said they found Michael Tate not guilty — but not because of his insanity defense.
On the charge of conspiracy to commit murder in the first degree, the jury found Michael Tate not guilty — but again, not because of his insanity defense.
On all of the other charges, including one for first-degree felony murder, the jury found Michael Tate guilty.
"I think that based on Dr. Hardy's testimony that Tate was insane, at least at the time of the murder, that there were a couple of us who agreed with that, which contributed to the delay on the deliberations," explains juror Bernadette Pistone. "But we're not sure who stabbed Steven Fitzgerald."
The prosecution didn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was Tate who wielded the knife, she says, and since the coroner had determined that the victim's wounds from one knife were the cause of death, the jury voted not to convict Tate on the first-degree-murder charge.
But the felony murder charge applies to a murder that occurs during the commission of another felony, such as a burglary, even if the defendant isn't necessarily guilty of delivering the fatal blows. (The most famous felony-murder conviction in Colorado was in the case of Lisl Auman; see "Zero to Life," April 15, 1999.) The jurors found Tate guilty of felony murder, Pistone says, because they felt that he did meet the legal standard for sanity when he decided to go along with the burglary of the Fitzgerald home — even though he might have been insane when the actual murder was committed.
More than a year ago, Pistone had seen a Frontline special about juveniles sentenced to life without parole in Colorado, but she followed the judge's admonition that jurors not do independent research or consider outside information when coming to a verdict.
A Human Rights Watch report cited in that special noted that about 2,278 people were doing life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles — 2,270 of them in the United States, and 45 of those in Colorado.
When he is sentenced in November, Michael Tate will become the 46th juvie serving a life sentence. Because like first-degree murder, felony murder carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.