Wife stabbed, judge shot, Reno man on trial

October 1, 2007

RENO, Nevada (AP) -- With racy subplots, the case against Darren Mack has all the elements of a late-night adult TV drama: A wealthy, attractive couple. A swinger lifestyle. Well-heeled connections among the city's movers and shakers.
Darren Mack appears in court during a hearing last week in Reno, Nevada.
Mack is accused of stabbing his estranged wife to death at his town house and then shooting their divorce judge as he sat in his chambers. Jury selection was to begin Monday.

From the outset, defense lawyers Scott Freeman and David Chesnoff have questioned whether Mack, 46, a former wealthy pawn shop owner, can get a fair trial in a case that generated nationwide media attention and led to intense legal maneuvers.

All Washoe County judges were recused from hearing the criminal case or any civil suits stemming from it because of concerns of prejudice. And District Attorney Dick Gammick removed himself because of his long-standing acquaintance with Mack.

Out of about 400 potential jurors, more than 250 noted a belief of Mack's guilt. But the judge said a surprising number said they are open minded.

"It looks as though the majority of jurors in Washoe County have already made their minds up as it relates to Mr. Mack's guilt or innocence," Freeman said in an interview Friday. "Obviously, both sides would prefer that opinions have not been made."

Under Nevada law, potential jurors who admit having a preconceived opinion on a defendant's guilt can still be seated if they indicate a willingness and ability to set aside their feelings and decide the case on its merits.

"The question then becomes, when you say you can set aside your opinion, where do you put it? In your back pocket?" Freeman said. "That would be a very difficult thing for someone to do, just by human nature."

The defense was expected to move for a change of venue after jury selection. In Nevada, such motions cannot be heard until after an attempt is made to seat a jury.

District Judge Douglas Herndon last week acknowledged the defense concerns, and indicated that if an impartial jury cannot be seated, he would move the trial to Las Vegas.

Mack is accused of killing his wife, Charla, 39, whose body was found stabbed to death June 12, 2006, at Mack's upscale town house in south Reno.

Authorities allege he then drove downtown, and a few hours later shot Family Court Judge Chuck Weller with a high-powered rifle while the judge was in his chambers on the third floor of the courthouse. Weller, who was shot in the chest, recovered.

Mack allegedly fled the Reno area and ended up in Mexico, where he surrendered 11 days after the stabbing and shooting. Charged with murder and attempted murder, he has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Charla Mack filed for divorce in 2005. In court documents, her lawyer said Darren Mack ignored Weller's order to pay her $10,000 a month in temporary alimony. Weller found him in contempt of court, but Mack filed for bankruptcy to avoid paying.

The lawyer also said in documents that Mack continued to live a lavish lifestyle, took frequent vacations with girlfriends and often attended "swinger" parties.

While on the lam, he allegedly called and e-mailed Gammick, a friend and business acquaintance for 20 years. But the trial judge suppressed some of those communications, ruling they were obtained in an unethical manner because Gammick knew Mack was represented by lawyers.

The trial is expected to take two to four weeks, attorneys said. The prosecution lists more than 200 potential witnesses, including 15 experts. The defense in court filings identified three, with six experts.