Higgs' murder trial opens


RENO -- The jury selected Monday evening to decide whether Chaz Higgs killed his wife, former Nevada Controller Kathy Augustine, will be told that Higgs had talked about wanting to kill her.

District Judge Steven Kosach rejected motions by Higgs' lawyers to block testimony from Higgs' fellow nurses about comments they say he made to them.

When they asked whether he needed help in the emergency room, Higgs would say: "Yeah, you can get rid of my wife," according to prosecutors. They said Higgs also sometimes told people: "If it weren't for my daughter, I would strangle her (Augustine) and throw her down a mine shaft."

Defense lawyers David Houston and Alan Baum argued Higgs' comments were nothing more than flippant remarks, irrelevant to the case.

Deputy District Attorney Tom Barb countered that Higgs made the statements "regularly" and they showed his state of mind.

"There's nothing more relevant to this case ... than his intent," Barb said, and the judge agreed.

Augustine, 50, died of a heart attack, not from a lethal injection of medication administered by her husband, one of Higgs' defense lawyers told jurors.

"There are cases of sudden cardiac arrest without a history of heart problems," Baum told 80 prospective jurors. "If evidence showed she died of cardiac arrest as opposed to poisoning, would that concept be opposed by you?"

None of the prospective jurors responded that it would.

After five hours of questioning, a panel of 12 jurors and three alternates was selected Monday evening. They will gather in Kosach's courtroom at 9 a.m. today for opening statements in the murder trial of Higgs, 43.

Prosecutors will try to show that Higgs, a critical care nurse, killed his wife by injecting her with a dose of succinylcholine, a powerful muscle relaxant that is used in emergency rooms to help doctors insert breathing tubes into patients. It can be lethal if a patient's respiration is not assured by medical personnel.

Higgs said he found his wife unconscious and without a pulse when he went to serve her coffee in the bedroom of their Reno home July 8. He told reporters she had suffered a massive heart attack.

Three days after her admission to a Reno hospital, Augustine died when family members had medical staff disconnect artificial respiration equipment.

An autopsy performed July 12 by the Washoe County coroner's office found no evidence of heart disease and did not initially give a cause of death.

On July 14, Higgs attempted suicide in Las Vegas. He was released from the hospital the same day and didn't attend his wife's funeral.

Registered nurse Kim Ramey, who worked with Higgs at Carson Tahoe Hospital in Carson City, called police and said Higgs told her on July 7 that the perfect way to kill someone was by "hitting them with sux" because it is undetectable.

Samples of Augustine's blood and urine were sent to the FBI national laboratory in Virginia. In late September, tests found succinylcholine in her urine. Higgs then was charged with her murder.

The judge said Monday that he will leave it to the jury to determine the validity of expert testimony in the trial. Kosach rejected a defense motion to suppress testimony from experts.

The prosecution was pleased Monday because an expert witness for Higgs stipulated that succinylcholine was found in Augustine's urine.

None, however, was found in her blood, a fact the defense is expected to emphasize during the trial.

The judge promised the eight women and four men on the jury that the trial would end by June 29. But he added that he might ask them to work on the weekend if they do not reach a quick verdict in the case.

"This is not about jaywalking," he said. "It is not a traffic ticket. It is murder, the most serious crime."

All but a handful of the jurors questioned said they had heard about the case in the media. At least five raised their hand when asked if they had already determined whether Higgs was guilty or innocent, which prompted Kosach to say, "How can you do that?"

Kosach found himself on the hot seat as prospective jurors asked questions.

One woman said she was "a taxpayer" and wanted to know whether "all the evidence" would be given jurors.

"There is significant spin today," she said. "Are we going to find some evidence was not given us?"

Kosach admitted some information might not be given to jurors, although they could find out those matters, such as his positions on motions, after the trial.

"I decide the law. You decide the facts," he said.

The woman, who was not picked for the jury, said she had done extensive research on the case and was not satisfied by Kosach's response.

Another prospective juror who was not selected said she would not sign a death warrant against Higgs even if he is guilty because of her moral opposition to the death penalty.

Kosach noted the death penalty has not been sought in the case. If convicted, Higgs faces up to life in prison without chance of parole. He has been free on $250,000 bail since March.

The Associated Press filed a complaint with Kosach when he prohibited the media from observing the first 45 minutes of the jury selection process. The judge said there was not enough space in the courtroom for the media. Reporters had offered to stand in the rear of the courtroom.

The Reno Gazette-Journal also sent a lawyer to complain to Kosach about the fact that the media was prevented from observing all of the jury selection.

Actual selection of jurors also was done privately by Kosach and the lawyers in the judge's office.

The judge publicly disqualified 16 of the 80 jurors for various reasons including health concerns and language barriers. But after the long hearing, the judge called the lawyers into his office where the final selections of jurors were made.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

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