Guilty: Nakvinda could face life sentence for slaying Philip Gattuso
Roy Gattuso pumped his fist and said "thank you" under his breath when the verdict came in just after 11 a.m. on Friday.
After nearly six hours of mulling the case against the man accused of killing his brother, jurors had unanimously agreed Michael Nakvinda was the man who had hit Philip Gattuso in the head with a hammer repeatedly on Oct. 26, 2009 - leaving him to die on his bedroom floor, skull shattered like broken glass as blood pooled under him.
Outside the Cass County Courthouse an hour later, Roy Gattuso said he wasn't overly concerned about an acquittal, but knowing the verdict was still a relief.
"It's closure," he said, stopping a beat before adding, "It's part closure."
Closure remains partial because the other man tied to the murder of the Fargo dentist, his former father-in-law, Gene Kirkpatrick, still must stand trial. But for now, part of the way was enough for the Gattusos.
"Needless to say, we're elated," Roy Gattuso said.
Prosecutors were also pleased that Nakvinda was found guilty on charges of murder, robbery, burglary and theft, set for a Jan. 28 sentencing that could draw a term of life in prison with no chance of parole.
Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick said the convictions were important in the sense that murders are rare here, and "everyone feels a little bit safer" when justice is done.
He wouldn't comment on how the case might affect Kirkpatrick's trial set for March for conspiracy to commit murder. He's been accused of hiring Nakvinda for $3,000 in expenses with the promise of $10,000 more in a murder-for-hire plot, though he testified earlier this week he'd never given Nakvinda, his handyman, the go-ahead to kill his granddaughter's father.
He told police he wanted Gattuso dead so he could get custody of his daughter, Kennedy Gattuso, then 3 years old. Valerie Gattuso, Kirkpatrick's daughter and Gattuso's wife, died seven months before the murder.
Burdick did say prosecutors will study the testimony of Kirkpatrick with keen interest. "We will certainly have available to us every word he uttered in this trial, and we'll review it closely," he said.
The state's attorney gave Fargo police credit for the "extraordinary resources" thrown at the investigation and for the many witnesses who stepped forward.
"We also had a bit of luck, but that's because of all that hard work," he said, citing security tapes at The Bowler and at a rest stop in South Dakota as examples of lucky breaks.
Defense attorney Steve Mottinger said he thought the verdicts could have gone either way, given there was no physical evidence or witnesses that could place Nakvinda at the crime scene or even in Fargo.
"That was obviously the strong point of our case," Mottinger said.
Burdick wouldn't say what he would recommend for sentencing, and there is no mandatory minimum, but Mottinger said he assumed prosecutors would ask Cass County District Court Judge Frank Racek for a lifetime prison term.
Asked if his client had steeled himself for a possible conviction, Mottinger said, "I don't know if anybody can ever be prepared for something like this."
As he did throughout the trial, Nakvinda showed no emotion, appearing to stare straight ahead as he heard he'd been found guilty.
Mottinger said an appeal would most likely be filed.
The jury of nine women and three men who considered eight days of testimony, more than 300 exhibits and 34 witnesses, declined to comment while being escorted out of the courthouse by deputies.
Nakvinda, 42, Oklahoma City, didn't dispute that he had hauled Gattuso's stolen Porsche from North Dakota back to Oklahoma, where it was found in a storage unit he had rented. Nor did he deny a hammer with the dentist's blood and hair on it and items stolen from his home were inside the convertible he'd stored away.
That's part of the reason Burdick said he understood why Nakvinda chose to take the stand to testify.
"Somebody had to explain the things our evidence was otherwise proving," said Burdick, Cass County's chief prosecutor.
Burdick said he thought Nakvinda presented a "not unpleasant personality" on the witness stand.
"To look at him, you didn't see a frightening countenance," he said.
Mottinger said that with Kirkpatrick testifying in the trial - as well as another former employer who said Nakvinda told her weeks before the murder that he'd use a hammer to kill the dentist - he figured he had no choice but to put the defendant on the stand.
Nakvinda claimed Gene Kirkpatrick was framing him. He maintained he was sleeping in a home in Wahpeton, N.D., on the night of Oct. 25, 2009, having come to North Dakota to pick up a car Kirkpatrick told him he'd bought on eBay and needed delivered back down to Oklahoma.
A man possibly named "Robbie" had taken his truck and rented trailer to pick up the Porsche and presumably kill the dentist, Nakvinda said. When he awoke on Oct. 26, the car was already loaded up and waiting outside. He said he had no idea the hammer and numerous stolen items were in the Porsche.
Prosecutors had used the security tapes' time stamps to show that there wouldn't have been enough time for a drop-off in Wahpeton, given when the truck left the area near The Bowler and when Nakvinda was seen at the rest stop.
"We had a difficult time dealing with the fact his pickup was in town," Mottinger said. "The timeline was obviously an issue."
Burdick said the testimony of Debbie Baker, the client of Nakvinda who he told about the hammer in early October, was particularly valuable in light of the lack of witnesses or forensics to put him at the scene of the crime.
"Hammers have been used in crimes before, but it's sort of a unique weapon," he said.
As for Kennedy Gattuso, the 4-year-old unwittingly at the center of the investigation, Roy Gattuso's family is now raising her after a custody struggle in court with Kirkpatrick's other daughter, Regan Williams.
Roy Gattuso said she is a happy child with "a Christmas list a mile long," but she doesn't yet know the circumstances of her dad's death. That will be a difficult conversation, he said, and a matter he's sure will require some counseling.
Seeing the pictures of her with Philip was the toughest part of sitting through the trial, Roy Gattuso said.
Burdick said that while he's glad Kennedy will feel the warmth of extended family, there's no doubt it's not the same as her own parents.
"Given that, when she's old enough to understand, I presume she'll appreciate the fact that the person who took her father from her will pay a price for having done so," he said.