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March 7, 2013

Judge rejects defense bid on neighbor evidence

OTTUMWA — Judge Daniel Wilson has rejected defense attempts to expand what jurors can be told about Seth Techel's neighbor, Brian Tate.

Techel, 22, has been charged with first-degree murder and non-consensual termination of a human pregnancy in the death of his wife, Lisa Caldwell Techel, on May 26, 2012 at their home in rural Agency.

The jury was not present in court for the discussions Thursday morning. That allowed the prosecution and defense to spar over the proposed evidence without keeping jurors cooped up in the jury room for hours on end.

The defense has suggested throughout the trial that Tate could be Lisa's killer. They wanted to introduce into evidence more information about Tate, including the circumstances of his death. Prosecutors countered that Tate's medical background was irrelevant.

Techel's attorney, Steven Gardner, asked seven witnesses to come forth to testify regarding the death of Brian Tate in September: Cindy Hewitt, Mike Holcomb, Mark Hagist, Dr. Steven Quackenbush, Will Reece, Mary Lou Tate and Don Phillips.

The morning of Sept. 30, Cindy Hewitt, EMS provider with Agency Fire and Rescue, responded to 8583 Fox Hills Road (the Techel's neighbor) with Agency Fire and Rescue Chief and first responder Mike Holcomb for a possible DOA (dead on arrival). The pair found Tate dead in his bed.

Hewitt said Tate was cool to the touch and had signs of rigor mortis, though she could not form an opinion on the cause of death.

"A person was laying on the bed face down with his arm hanging out over the edge of the bed," Holcomb said.

Once Tate's body was rolled over, Holcomb noticed that Tate's nose and face were covered with a white mucus, which he said shows indications of a blocked airway.

"He had blue lips and a blue area around the face and nose," Holcomb said. "With that much mucus around there, my education as a first responder tells me he had a blocked airway. There was no air passage and the victim suffocated."

Mark Hagist, medical examiner investigator, also responded to the Tate home on Sept. 30. He determined Tate died of natural causes.

A medical history was provided to Hagist by Tate's family, which included a report from a dentist more than a year prior to Tate's death that he had plaque build-up on his carotid artery, which needed medical attention.

But Brian didn't want to know what was wrong with him, said his mother, Mary Lou Tate, so he didn't go see a doctor and didn't even show her the X-ray for a long time.

Gardner also noted that there were two handwritten notes taped to a door and a mirror in Tate's room, one of which had the word "hopeless" written in large letters.

Mary Lou, who lived at the home with Brian, found his body. She cried on the stand Thursday as Gardner began speaking about her son's death.

Brian's doctors were not returning Mary Lou's calls the month prior to Tate's death, which prompted Brian to take matters into his own hands.

"He came upstairs and said, 'I know how to get them to call back,'" Mary Lou said. "He called [his doctors] and said, 'If you don't call me right away, I'll take something to ... so that I'm serious about you calling me back."

That may have led doctors to believe the voicemail was a suicide threat, which led Brian to be involuntarily hospitalized at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames for approximately five days. There, doctors diagnosed Brian as bipolar and schizophrenic.

"...he was bipolar or schizophrenic, had medications, his age, the fact that there was no trauma on the body, nothing suspicious about the scene," Hagist said of his determination to declare the death natural.

Hagist had also been told that Tate had been involuntarily hospitalized.

Shortly before May 26, 2012, the day of Lisa's murder, Mary Lou had told a neighbor that Brian wasn't taking his medications and said Brian had been concerned and worried due to vandalism at the Tate home.

No toxicology examinations were performed on Tate's body to determine if a possible overdose contributed to his death. An autopsy also was not performed on his body.

Hagist said Wapello County Sheriff Chief Deputy Don Phillips had concerns that an autopsy should be performed "to alleviate concerns about [Tate's] death," though the medical examiner's office determined an autopsy was unnecessary.

Phillips also responded to the Tate home the day of Brian's death and agreed that he would have preferred an autopsy to be conducted on the body. Phillips said he did not speak with any family members about obtaining fingerprints from Brian's body, though he did speak with DCI investigator Tony Birmingham.

By the time this phone call happened, though, Brian's body had been cremated.

Phillips said he had also spoken with Birmingham in mid-August about possibly obtaining fingerprints from Brian, though he had never spoken to Brian about the matter.

Wapello County Medical Examiner Dr. Steven Quackenbush mostly handles paperwork in death cases and did not observe Tate's body. He signed the preliminary investigation report and the cremation permit.

Quackenbush said blue lips generally means low oxygen supply and mouth foam "is a frequent sign of congested heart failure, a build-up of fluid in the lungs and airways in general."

Reece Funeral Home director Will Reece also took the stand, though he mainly described the cremation process and recognized the documents he signed and authorized.

Tate was cremated the day after he died, on Oct. 1.

Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown, with the prosecution, said the issue of Brian's mental state as a schizophrenic, the lack of an autopsy, the papers found in his room, his recent stint at Mary Greeley and possible suicidal claims were all irrelevant to the case at hand. Wilson agreed.

"The evidence the defense seeks to present to the jury through the seven witnesses is not relevant to this case," said Wilson. "The defense ... must make a strong showing of relevancy and this evidence fails in that regard. It would potentially take the trial down trails that would consume additional time unnecessarily."

Tate wasn't the day's only focus.

Wapello County Sheriff dispatcher Thomas Millikin and Wapello County Jail Administrator Jeremy Weller later testified about the monitors, computers, server and software used by dispatch to record 9-1-1 calls, ingoing and outgoing radio traffic and administrative calls.

Judge Wilson permitted a call from 9-1-1 dispatch to Seth Techel's land line the day of the murder to possibly be played in court on Friday.

The trial will reconvene at 9 a.m. Friday with the jury present. Three more witnesses will be called to the stand. It's not clear whether Techel will be one of them.

Judge Wilson said following Thursday's proceedings that it's possible that evidence submission could conclude on Friday and closing statements and jury instructions could begin on Monday.


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