- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 4, 2015

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - An Oklahoma man convicted of hiring his handyman to kill his son-in-law in North Dakota nearly six years ago is taking his case to federal court after exhausting his appeals on the state level.

Gene Kirkpatrick is serving a life term in a South Dakota prison for the October 2009 death of Fargo dentist Philip Gattuso. Kirkpatrick’s daughter, Valerie, died of a long illness seven months before Gattuso was killed. Authorities said Kirkpatrick was upset with the way Gattuso was raising his granddaughter.

Kirkpatrick, who is from Jones, Oklahoma, said in his handwritten federal court document filed Monday that his lawyers did a poor job of representing him and his statements to police should not have been allowed in court. He said the court should do one of three things: drop the charges against him, grant him a new trial or modify his sentence to make him immediately eligible for parole.

Kirkpatrick’s federal petition repeats many of the same arguments presented in several previous unsuccessful appeals to state district court and the North Dakota Supreme Court.

Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick said Tuesday that the state courts made the right decision.

“If Kirkpatrick has a right to the habeas corpus process in federal court, then it will run its course and I trust the federal court system will reach similar conclusions,” Burdick said.

In the federal court filing, Kirkpatrick criticized his lead attorney, Mack Martin of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for telling the jury that Kirkpatrick would take the stand and then talking him out of it. That was unfair because “I alone could explain incriminating statements I made to law enforcement,” Kirkpatrick wrote.

Martin testified during an appeal hearing in state court that he was afraid Kirkpatrick would talk too much in front of the jury.

Kirkpatrick added that Martin and a local attorney, the late Steven Light, told him to reject a plea deal of 25 years in prison because they wrongly told him he would not be eligible for parole.

Burdick said Tuesday that he believed Kirkpatrick’s attorneys represented him well and that he received a fair trial and appropriate sentence.

The centerpiece of the trial was a nearly three-hour police interview in which Kirkpatrick admitted asking Michael Nakvinda how much it would take to kill Gattuso and said he thought his granddaughter’s welfare was more important than Gattuso’s life. Kirkpatrick said in an earlier appeal that the interview exonerates him because he never agreed to close the deal and said so many times.

Kirkpatrick wrote in the federal document that police lied when they said he was implicated by Nakvinda, who is serving life in prison without parole for murder.

“They used interrogation techniques which overcame my free will by talking about my deceased daughter and custody of my granddaughter, and made appeals to my conscience,” Kirkpatrick wrote.

Kirkpatrick also blames the judge for failing to instruct the jury he was suffering from “extreme emotional disturbance at the time of the alleged crimes.”

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