In for Life: Day One of the Michael Tate Trial

Monday was the first day of a scheduled three-week trial in Jefferson County, a trial in which nineteen-year-old Michael Tate faces charges including first-degree murder. Tate has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

He spent much of that first day in court with his face buried in his hands, hiding a black eye that he picked up in the Jeffco jail while awaiting trial. And he wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to be in that courtroom.

Luke Turf is posting daily dispatches on the Michael Tate murder trial. Here's his look at the first day:

Tate is accused of murdering 41-year-old Steven Fitzgerald in 2004. Earlier this year, Steven’s son, Michael Fitzgerald, made a deal with prosecutors in which he’ll serve 62 years in prison – and testify against his friend. Michael Tate was only sixteen when the murder was committed, but he’s being tried as an adult, and under an almost-obsolete law, if he is convicted, the mandatory sentence is life behind bars, with no possibility of parole.

“This is the knife that the defendant used to kill Steve Fitzgerald,” deputy district attorney Jacque Russell told the jury as she held the blade in one hand, a hand covered with a blue rubber glove. Her other hand, also clad in rubber, held the knife’s handle, which Tate had shoved into Steven Fitzgerald’s rib cage so hard that the knife broke in two.

“And this is the shovel that this defendant used to bludgeon Steven Fitzgerald as he lay on the ground, bleeding to death.”

When Russell described for the jury how Steven Fitzgerald was spewing blood, shaking and convulsing, the description proved too much to bear for the victim’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Jessica. It was supposed to be the first day of her junior year in high school; instead, she was in court with her mother to testify.

Michael Tate has been in and out of foster homes and mental-health treatment facilities his whole life -- 28 moves in 13 years, according to one of his attorneys, Maggie Baker.

“Michael Tate’s memory is not accurate because he is literally out of his mind,” she warned the jury. She also warned the fourteen people in the jurors’ box that Michael Fitzgerald’s account of what happened in that Westminster garage three years ago is unreliable, too. “He wants forgiveness from his family, his mom and his sister.”

The first witness called to the stand by the prosecution was Jessica, who offered vivid details of the traumatic day that she found her house had been burglarized by her brother and his friend. She was worried about the well-being of her father, who had failed to pick her up from school as he usually did on Mondays. At one point during her frantic search around the ransacked house, Jessica was just a few feet from her father’s dead body in the garage – but she missed the gruesome discovery.

When it was the defense’s turn to cross-examine Jessica, Tate’s attorney mostly worked on extracting information about her brother’s habitual lies, in an effort to discredit the prosecution’s star witness long before he takes the stand. “If we didn’t take a shower on time or we took the last cookie, we’d be like we didn’t do it,” Jessica said. “If he wanted to stay up an extra hour or something like that.” He would lie, she agreed.

Later in the afternoon, Kris Fitzgerald took the stand. Michael and Jessica’s mother, she’d been married to the victim for close to twenty years. But when the jury was sent home for the night, the prosecution was still at the point when Steven Fitzgerald’s body had been recovered, but not yet identified. -- Luke Turf

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun