This story originally aired Dateline NBC on July 11, 2008.
RENO, NEV. — Reno is a little city with a big, gritty reputation as a 24-hour-a-day mecca for divorce, gambling and prostitution, and every so often a mighty storm blows in off the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains. Some say it's Mother Nature's way of washing clean the sins of the city.
There was a storm of a different sort brewing in the spring of 2006. And for a little city that's seen it all, this was something big.
Victoria Campbell: I've been working in Reno for more than 20 years. And I have to say this is probably the biggest story I've covered.
It’s a dramatic story that stunned Reno and garnered nationwide headlines: a sniper-style shooting and a brutal murder, allegations of a cover-up, corruption, coercion, and an unbelievably wild ride through the criminal court system. It was the kind of storm this town will not soon forget, and it all started with an unhappy couple looking to get a divorce.
Victoria Campbell: This divorce, on a scale of one to 10, I'd rank it at about a 12.
It was an epic and bitter divorce, a relationship that ended in rancor, but began with hot-blooded romance.
It was the spring of 1994. Darren Mack, then 33, had been riding high in his career. He’d taken over Palace Jewelry and Loan. The pawnshop was a profitable landmark on the Reno strip. Darren’s brother, Landon.
Landon Mack: He just loved the family business.
Victoria Corderi, Dateline NBC: And he was good at it?
Landon Mack: Yeah, he was very good at it.
Victoria Corderi: What made him a good businessman, do you think?
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Landon Mack: His honesty, his integrity.
Landon says Darren was a great motivational speaker who was part of a self-help organization.
Landon Mack: My brother has always had a pull to help people. And that gave him a vehicle to express that in a very large way.
In May of 1994, Darren Mack took a trip to Los Angeles to speak at a seminar. It was there that he first laid eyes on a younger woman named Charla. Charla's brother, Chris.
Chris Broughton: She was vivacious. She was energetic. She had a way about her that commanded presence and she had what-- it is commonly called a big personality.
Soorya Townley: She was magnificently beautiful. And when she would walk in a room, people sometimes would gasp because she was-- of her beauty.
Charla was a petite, 27-year-old brunette who ran a floral arranging business in L.A. She too was passionate about self-help education and loved to sing country music.
Her mother Soorya and her brother say Charla thought the divorced Darren seemed like the ideal guy.
Chris Broughton: He was accomplished. He was secure and stable. He already had two children. He seemed to be a good father to them. She was also attracted to him physically.
The following summer the couple got married in an intimate ceremony in nearby Lake Tahoe.
Chris Broughton: It was very obvious that they were deeply in love.
Victoria Corderi: And you thought they had good chances, then?
Chris Broughton: Oh, yes, absolutely. I was so happy for my sister. I--
Soorya Townley: I thought that was it.
But Soorya says her daughter's marriage was dramatic and stormy right from the start.
Soorya Townley: It was right away. They were fighting. Very big and loud and dramatic and emotional.
Victoria Corderi: Big fights and then big, passionate making up?
Soorya Townley: Correct.
Victoria Corderi: And so, that was part of their passion together?
Soorya Townley: That was their passion.
A passion that wore thin. Soorya says a few years into the marriage, Charla decided to leave -- until she found out she was pregnant.
Victoria Corderi: What was her reaction?
Soorya Townley: Well, it had been unplanned. And that was when she knew that she was going to make the marriage work.
So Charla stayed, and soon after the birth of their baby girl, the Macks moved into a million-dollar mansion. They had elaborate family get togethers, fancy cars, and lived prosperously.
But Charla's mother says behind the fancy facade, this marriage was falling apart and Charla's desperation to make her husband happy took an ugly turn into a sordid world.
Soorya Townley: Darren came in and gave her an ultimatum. Right after the birth when she was still nursing, he said, "You either do this or I'm leaving you."
Victoria Corderi: Do what?
Soorya Townley: Swing.
Swinging...opening up their marriage to sex with strangers. Soorya says Charla and Darren began taking trips to adult resorts in places like Jamaica... went to strip bars and experimented with the club drug, ecstasy... all in the name of saving the marriage.
Soorya says Charla went along but became unhappy with the kinky lifestyle.
Soorya Townley: She just put her foot down-- finally and said, "I don't wanna do this anymore." And, that's when they started having serious problems.
Darren’s brother says Soorya's version of events is a lie, that Darren Mack never forced Charla into anything.
Victoria Corderi: As far as you were concerned, they were both on the same page?
Landon Mack: Yes. Oh, absolutely they were on the same page. It was a mutual consenting deal.
Landon Mack says Charla was not a frightened victim but a woman with her own demons, which included a violent temper.
Landon Mack: I watched Charla hit my brother so hard it knocked him over a bar table in a disco.
Landon Mack says his brother's marriage continued to deteriorate until Darren finally moved out in the fall of 2004. In February 2005, Charla filed for divorce, a move that would land them in Judge Charles Weller’s courtroom -- and at each other's throats in a blistering battle over money.
Judge Weller: This is the case of Charla Mack versus Darren Mack.
Early in the proceedings, the judge ordered Darren to pay Charla more than ten thousand dollars a month in temporary alimony and child support. But Mack said he couldn't and afford it and declared bankruptcy. Charla's lawyer claimed Mack was far from being bankrupt and said Mack was making $44,000 dollars a month at the time and was hiding money and assets.
Attorney Shawn Meador: In my opinion, this court has to do something to impress upon Mr. Mack that he doesn't get to do just whatever he wants.
Mack vigorously denied that was the case.
Darren Mack: I was given an impossible situation, that is why I filed bankruptcy, your honor. I wasn't just saying, "Oh, I don't care about what you say." I was talking to my attorneys trying to figure out how we could do motions, "How do we deal with this? I can't pay it."
Judge Weller was not sympathetic. He came down hard on Mack.
Judge Weller:My inclination is to give your guy till Friday to pay all the money that he owes or to put him in the Washoe County jail.
Landon Mack claims from the moment his brother stepped in the courtroom, the judge had it out for Darren.
Landon Mack: From the very first meeting Judge Weller was going-- had already made a ruling that Darren was wrong, Charla was right.
As the divorce raged on, Landon Mack says his brother's hatred of the judge intensified. During that time Darren met and began a relationship with a woman who claimed she too had been mistreated by Judge Weller.
Alecia Biddison: Everybody loses in family court matters. But, I think what he felt as well as what many others feel is I'm not losing in any fair way. Decisions are being made without considering all the facts, all the evidence.
Alecia Biddison was on a mission, lobbying state legislators for judicial reform in family court. She says she found a kindred spirit in Darren who was searching desperately for someone to intervene in his court case.
Alecia Biddison: And he went to people saying, "Look at my case. Look at what's going on. Look at how these decisions are being made. Somebody intervene and help."
Landon Mack: He went to State senators. He went to judges. Pleading that he's being absolutely unfairly handled in the family court system.
Judge Weller: Some of Mack's apologists appear to have divorced themselves from reality in order to maintain their support for him. They have made similar outrageous attacks on me, other judges, and lawyers involved with the case. These attacks on the judicial process and those of us who administer it have been shown to be false.
In a statement, Judge Weller said that those who believe Mack’s allegations against him "appear to have divorced themselves from reality in order to maintain their support" for Mack. He wrote that "attacks" against his conduct and against others involved in the judicial process "have been shown to be false."
Darren Mack had even sought help from his old friend, Dick Gammick. The local prosecutor had counseled Mack during his first divorce a decade earlier.
Dick Gammick: This one was really getting under his skin. Really obsessed with it. To the point of that's about all he could talk about.
On May 24, 2006, Judge Weller was ready to make a final ruling in the Mack’s divorce.
Judge Weller: I can only pick one side or the other, and one of you has to lose.
Tensions between the couple were at an all-time high. Charla told the judge she was afraid to give Darren her new address.
Charla Mack: He gets so angry and so ripped up, that I don't feel comfortable him knowing personally where I live.
Darren accused Charla and her attorney of twisting the truth to get their way.
Darren Mack:Over and over, they lie, lie, lie.
In the end, Judge Weller ordered Darren Mack to pay Charla more than a million dollars, nearly $500,000 now, and $10,000 a month for the next five years. The judge's assistant Annie Allison recalls that day clearly.
Annie Allison: And I do remember judge coming back from that hearing looking at me, saying, "That guy gave me the look of death."
On Monday, June 12, 2006, the residents of Reno were easing back into the work week when all hell broke loose in the downtown business district.
Detective Ron Chalmers: Shortly after 11:07, we received a telephone call of a possible sniper-style shooting over at the Mills Lane Justice Center.
For Reno detective Ron Chalmers, it would be the start of a long, brutal day, beginning with a sniper attack in broad daylight.
Dick Gammick, the local district attorney, was in a meeting when his secretary interrupted with news that terrorized everyone in the courthouse.
Dick Gammick: She came back in and said, "There's been a judge shot over in the family court."
The victim was none other than 52-year-old Charles Weller, the Mack’s family court judge. He had been standing in his office talking to his assistant when gunfire burst through the window.
Annie Allison: There was a pop. And then I heard the judge yell out, "Oh, I've been hit.”
Police and news crews arrived to a scene straight out of a Hollywood movie. Reporter Victoria Campbell.
Victoria Campbell: People were shutting their curtains. People were being evacuated from the courthouse. No one knew what to think. It was terrifying.
Campbell says panic-stricken people in the busy downtown area didn't know what to do... where the sniper might strike next.
Victoria Corderi, Dateline NBC: Was there any description? Was there any eye-witness? Anyone telling you who to look for?
Detective Ron Chalmers: No, the greatest tip for us was simply the fact that Judge Weller had been shot in his office through glass. That helped us to determine at least the trajectory of the shot.
Police and SWAT teams quickly zeroed on a parking garage across the street: the suspected sniper's perch.
Victoria Corderi: There's the judge's office right there.
Ron Chalmers: Yes. It's on the third floor of the three-story building. It's approximately 172 yards from this point to the glass.
Chalmers says videotape from these security cameras helped him piece together a timeline and a theory about what happened.
Just before 11 a.m., an SUV enters the garage, drives up to the fifth floor and parks in this space.
Ron Chalmers: He's here for about 15 or 20 minutes, then that camera depicts the vehicle back up, pulls forward, and then backs that-- so that the rear end of the vehicle is now facing the Mills Lane Justice Center.
A few minutes later, Chalmers says the video shows the Explorer's rear hatch being lifted.
Ron Chalmers: And then, at about 11:06 in the morning, about the same time when Judge Weller is shot, the rear hatch is suddenly closed and the vehicle flees the parking garage.
The cameras didn't capture the sniper's face, but they did give police their first solid lead - a silver 2006 Ford Explorer. Meanwhile back inside the courthouse, paramedics worked on Judge Weller and Annie Allison. She had been hit with glass and shards of metal.
Annie Allison: I thought, what just happened? My perfect little world is not so perfect anymore.
The judge was in far worse shape. He had been shot in the chest and was rushed to a nearby hospital where surgeons carefully began removing bullet fragments. He would survive, but would need roughly 40 stitches to close his wounds.
Victoria Corderi: Was the Judge or his assistant able to tell you anything that could be of help?
Detective Ron Chalmers: He provided other detectives who had met with him, immediately the name Darrel Mack.
The judge actually meant "Darren" Mack -- the well-known pawnshop owner who had given him the so-called "look of death" just three weeks earlier.
Authorities began to wonder if Weller’s final ruling in the divorce somehow had made Darren Mack snap. Was he so fed up, so blinded by fury, that he decided to exact revenge?
And if he did shoot the judge who had ruled against him, what about his wife, who had dragged him into court in the first place?
Dick Gammick: We started becoming concerned about Charla. And where she was at and we could not find her.
As police began frantically searching for Darren Mack, detective Ron Chalmers got word to leave the scene of the shooting and head across town to investigate another possible crime.
Detective Ron Chalmers: The initial call was suspicious circumstances.
The address was Darren Mack’s condo in an upscale gated community called the Fleur de Lis.
A friend of Darren’s, who had been staying at the house with his dog, had called police and said he feared something awful might have happened.
That morning, about an hour and a half before the judge was shot, he said Charla Mack had arrived to drop off the couple's 8-year-old daughter.
Mack asked his friend to take the little girl inside so he could speak with Charla privately in the driveway.
The friend told police that moments later, his dog came running into the condo covered in blood. Then, in walked Darren with a towel wrapped around his hand and a bizarre look on his face.
The friend took Mack’s daughter and fled.
Detective Ron Chalmers: We attempted to make contact by knocking on the door and calling inside. We received no answer.
Chalmers says he and his partner quickly searched around the outside of the home.
Ron Chalmers: And, at that time, we found three droplets of blood in the driveway.
The detectives opened the garage door. Parked on the right was Darren’s Jeep Cherokee, on the left was Charla's Lexus SUV -- and on the floor, a gruesome image.
Detective Ron Chalmers: And as we make our way to the middle of the two vehicles, now we see this large pooling of blood that leads to Charla Mack's body.
Chalmers says despite his experience investigating homicides, the blood-soaked scene was hard to take in. Charla had been stabbed multiple times. Her body, dragged across the floor.
It became the second big story on a very, very busy news day. Reporter Victoria Campbell with KRNV-TV in Reno.
Victoria Campbell: The Reno Police Department held a news conference and said, "These two unthinkable crimes in this community are linked."
In short order, Darren Mack became a wanted man -- possibly armed and dangerous.
Detective Ron Chalmers: He's lashed out at a Judge, by sniper-style shooting at him. He has murdered his wife. And you just wonder, where's the next victim?
A judge had been shot at a downtown Reno courthouse and a woman had been stabbed to death across town. Darren Mack, now the prime suspect, was missing. Police hurried to figure out his next move. Was he on a killing spree? Detectives canvassed Mack’s family and friends, including his brother, Landon.
Landon Mack: We were at my mom's house and a SWAT team came to clear the house. And then they wanted to, you know, see what we knew.
Victoria Corderi, Dateline NBC: Was your gut saying, "Oh my-- how could he have done this?" Or--
Landon Mack: Well, my--
Victoria Corderi: --to--
Landon Mack: --there was part of that and then most of it was we didn't-- where's my brother? Maybe he's-- he's in a ditch somewhere. I mean I don't know what's goin' on.
Neither did Charla's mother, Soorya, until she heard the grim news and called her son.
Chris Broughton: My mother calls me trembling and crying, and says are you sitting down?" And she says, "He killed my baby. He killed my little girl. He killed her."
Charla's brother, Chris says he had feared for his sister's safety and had even warned her.
Chris Broughton: Knowing how vicious, and how long, and how brutal that divorce had been, and so I said, "Sis, you know, you are beautiful. You are brilliant. You are powerful. Just back away, you know. You're going to be fine." And she always said, "No, I don't think Darren's going to harm me because he loves himself too much. He would never want to do anything to put himself into prison.
"We're seeking Darren Mack..."
In the days that followed, authorities launched an international manhunt. Darren Mack’s case was headline news.
Deputy Chief Jim Johns:"The suspect in this case, Darren Mack, is known to have access to firearms...."
Soon, Mack was atop the FBI's most wanted list. His cousin appealed to Darren to turn himself in.
Jeff Donner: If Darren can hear me, I am pleading with him to please contact me.
His girlfriend, Alecia Biddison says she grew more worried by the day.
Alecia Biddison: I was afraid that he would be harmed and killed.
More than a week had passed and Darren Mack’s trail was now cold. Mack was assumed to have fled the country. Then a call came in that would change everything. A call from Mexico -- Mack phoned his old friend, the very man who would prosecute him, Washoe County District Attorney Dick Gammick.
Dick Gammick: He said, "I killed Charla, but it was in self defense." I said, "Okay." He also said "You know me. If I wanted Judge Weller dead, he'd be dead."
Gammick says Mack was willing to surrender under some surprising conditions and spelled them out in a detailed e-mail.
Dick Gammick: And it's saying he wants to turn himself in. That he wants the death penalty. That he wants to make sure that he has an opportunity to tell his story.
Mack turned himself in to the FBI at a beachfront hotel in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
"Darren Roy Mack was apprehended in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico overnight..."
The next day, federal agents brought Mack back to the United States, and he was booked into the Reno jail.
"Darren Mack was led in handcuffs..."
Mack's girlfriend Alecia finally spoke to him and says he pleaded with her.
Alecia Biddison: "You need to believe in me. Believe in who you believe I am. Because I reserve the right to set the record straight."
The Macks hired two of Nevada’s most seasoned lawyers -- Scott Freeman, a prominent criminal defense attorney in Reno, and David Chesnoff, a high-profile lawyer from Las Vegas with a celebrity client list that included Martha Stewart and Britney Spears.
Mack’s lawyers steered Darren away from his death penalty demands and he pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder and attempted murder. The high profile case was moved from Reno to Las Vegas and the state appointed two special prosecutors and a special judge from Las Vegas to preside. In October 2007, Darren Mack was ready to face a jury.
It had been 12 years since the Macks had been married in Lake Tahoe. And now, in the cold confines of a Las Vegas courtroom, Charla's mother and Darren’s mother found themselves sitting across the aisle once again, this time grieving over their losses. Darren Mack stood accused of stabbing to death the wife he once loved so dearly and then shooting the judge who had been handling their divorce.
Robert Daskas:You will learn the defendant had a motive to kill both Charla Mack and Judge Charles Weller.
Prosecutors Robert Daskas and Christopher Lalli told the jury that the motive in this case was simple.
Darren Mack:They lie, lie, lie.
Darren Mack had walked away from his contentious divorce a loser to the tune of a million dollars. They said Mack was so upset, so angry, that he ambushed his estranged wife the morning of June 12th and then tried to assassinate the judge before fleeing to Mexico.
Victoria Corderi, Dateline NBC: It's so extreme, though.
Christopher Lalli: Oh, it's absolutely extreme. But when you have a spoiled rich kid who doesn't get his way, I mean you do things like that.
To help prove motive, prosecutors played an interview Darren did with a group advocating family court reforms, videotaped just one week after the divorce ruling and two weeks before the murder and shooting. In it, Mack likens the family court system to the English tyranny that started the American Revolution.
Darren Mack (Videotape): It's time to take a stand. It's time to not let this tyranny go under the wraps, keep it quiet. If our forefathers in 1776 stood by, "Just keep quiet, maybe England'll go away," we would be sipping tea right now. At what point do we become and stand up to this absolute unconstitutionality and state, "We're not going to take this anymore"? Where do we draw the line?
Robert Daskas: He was essentially calling on people to start a revolution, to do something to fix the family court system. In his mind, he was justified.
Prosecution: The evidence as you will earn is overwhelming.
Prosecutors knew that motive alone was not enough to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. So they brought forth a mound of seemingly overwhelming evidence they believed connected Darren Mack to both of the crimes.
Robert Daskas: Gunshot residue, fingerprints, DNA, video surveillance.
When detectives searched Darren Mack’s condo, they found this rental car agreement for a 2006 silver Ford Explorer.
Robert Daskas: Is there a name of a customer that appears on that rental contract?
Sam Azizeh: Yes there is.
Robert Daskas: What's the name?
Sam Azizeh: Darren Mack.
It was the same vehicle seen in this security footage from the parking garage across from the courthouse. When the Explorer was later recovered, a forensic expert testified that she found gunshot residue in the rear cargo area.
Robert Daskas: What conclusions can we draw from the presence of those elements?
Patricia Eddings: One, someone fired a gun or a weapon of some type in this vehicle. The second conclusion is that if you had a weapon that had a lot of residue because it had recently been fired and laid it in there, that would also deposit those kind of materials.
Also found in Mack’s condo, several boxes of 2-43 caliber bullets, the same kind used in the judge's shooting.
In the kitchen were numerous documents about Judge Weller.
Victoria Corderi: The tenor of all the documents was what?
Ron Chalmers: It showed Darren Mack was obsessed with the Family Court system.
Prosecutors said all of this proved that Darren Mack was in fact the sniper who shot Judge Weller around 11 a.m. on June 12, 2006.
Next, prosecutors set out to show that Darren Mack attacked and stabbed Charla in his garage just hours before shooting the judge.
This empty sheath was found in his bedroom, and it belonged to an especially lethal knife.
Ron Chalmers: Approximately four-inch blade, double-edge dagger, fixed-bladed dagger.
Victoria Corderi: Used for hunting?
Ron Chalmers: I think it's used for killing. I mean, I-- I suppose there are hunters out there that use a knife like that. But its purpose is-- is inflict injury.
Prosecutors called to the stand a medical expert who testified that Charla had been stabbed multiple times all over her body.
Christopher Lalli: How many total stab wounds do you think that accounts for?
Dr. Raven: Seven.
Prosecutors knew that Darren Mack’s attorneys were going to argue that he stabbed Charla in self-defense. So they brought forth evidence to refute that claim.
When Mack surrendered in Mexico, his shoes had traces of Charla's blood, and none of Darren’s. And these photos taken upon his return did not reveal so much as a scratch to indicate Mack had been engaged in a struggle in any way.
Robert Daskas: Did you see any injuries to his hands?
Tony Leal-Olsen: No. I did not.
Robert Daskas: His forearms?
Tony Leal-Olsen: No.
Robert Daskas: Any injuries to his face?
Tony Leal-Olsen: No.
Finally, prosecutors unveiled evidence they believed would prove to the jury that Darren Mack carefully and willfully planned the death of his ex-wife and the shooting of judge Weller.
A hand-written note found in Mack’s condo after the crimes.
Victoria Corderi: What is the best evidence that you have to support premeditation?
Robert Daskas: The list.
Christopher Lalli: Yeah, the to-do list. Where basically he laid out exactly what happened in the case.
A so-called "to-do" list. Police found it on Mack’s kitchen table. Prosecutor Christopher Lalli said the list was a blueprint for the murder and the shooting.
Christopher Lalli: He talked about moving cars around.
The words "put lex in garage" were written down. Charla's Lexus had been moved from the driveway into the garage.
Christopher Lalli: He talked about ending a problem, that problem being his wife. And then he talked about the parking garage if yes. He shot Judge Weller from a parking garage.
Prosecutors said there should be no doubt these were cold-blooded, pre-planned attacks and Darren Mack should be found guilty. But the jury was about to hear a very different account of what happened on June 12, 2006. An unbelievably wild ride through the criminal court system was about to begin.
Scott Freeman: Ladies and gentlemen-- you've heard from the state. They told you their version of the events and now it's time for the defense to tell you their story.
Darren Mack’s defense attorneys were about to tell the jury that their client was a victim, not a villain, and that the stabbing death of Charla was not murder, but self-defense. Darren, they said, afraid of his estranged wife. To prove this, defense lawyer Scott Freeman needed to change the jury's idea of Charla Mack, and so, he opened with a full-scale attack. Claiming she had had a split personality.
Scott Freeman: She can be kind and giving in public. She could be violent and abusive at home. It was too much for Darren to take.
Charla was, the defense said, a kind of terrorist, torturing Darren with demands for money and custody.
Scott Freeman: The divorce was to be her form of terrorism. Darren felt abuse more than ever.
And it wasn't just psychological terror, said Freeman. Charla had threatened Darren Mack with physical violence as well.
Scott Freeman: "I will cut your penis off and put it in a freezer." "I will kill you. I watch Court TV every day and I know how to do it.
Freeman said Darren started to believe that Charla would carry out those threats...especially after a psychic told him to beware of her.
Scott Freeman: She said, "There's blood everywhere. You can't turn your back on Charla. She will stab you with knife."
And so, he said, Darren Mack bought a knife to defend himself.
Scott Freeman:It would be a knife verses knife. That would qualify for legal self-defense.
On the day of the murder, the defense said, Charla got into a fight with Darren in his garage when she learned he was going to appeal the divorce court ruling.
Scott Freeman: That enraged Charla. The name calling from Charla began. The terrorist split personality reared its evil head. She transferred into pure hatred.
He said when Darren turned his back Charla attacked.
Scott Freeman: Unbeknownst to Darren, Charla follows and bashes him in the right side of his face from behind. She knocked him over onto his left knee. He never saw it coming.
He says they began struggling and a gun Darren had always carried around for protection fell from his pocket. Charla grabbed it.
Scott Freeman: Charla looks at the gun, pulls the hammer back, smiles, and fires.
But the gun misfired, he said.
Scott Freeman: Charla starts to cock the hammer again. Darren lunges at her. All he gets was a handful of hair. Darren knew he was going to die. Charla rolled to her left. They both fell to the ground. The terror for Darren is overwhelming.
And that, Freeman says, is when Darren reached for his knife.
Scott Freeman: Charla is kicking and he is trying to pull the knife out. They are both struggling on the ground. Darren plunges the knife into her neck once.
Freeman then attempted to explain away the so-called "to-do" list. He said after the fight with Charla, Darren was out of his mind and simply scribbled the list as a way to help him organize his thoughts.
But if this was truly self-defense, why then, would Darren drive to the parking garage and shoot Judge Weller?
The opening statement continued, as attorney David Chesnoff picked up the story, telling the jury that the fight in the garage caused Mack to snap. It triggered a long simmering delusional state in Darren. Charla had finally pushed him over the edge with her hatred, and the drug fueled party life they had shared during their marriage had damaged his reason.
David Chesnoff: Darren Mack was suffering from a recognized mental disorder.
Chesnoff told the jury that Mack started to believe the Second Amendment gave him the right to shoot the judge, and he said the prosecution had already provided evidence of Mack’s unbalanced state: the interview tape.
Darren Mack: (videotape) "It's time to not let this tyranny go under the wraps..."
David Chesnoff: If that's not delusional, I don't know what is. He was basically comparing himself to Benjamin Franklin.
Darren Mack: (videotape) If our forefathers in 1776 stood by, "Just keep quiet, maybe England'll go away," we would be sipping tea right now.
David Chesnoff: Darren acted upon his delusions in shooting Judge Weller and the disease he suffers from caused the delusions to control his actions.
The defense attorneys said they would put on experts and witnesses to back-up these remarkable claims. But the jury never got to hear from them. Instead of calling its first witness, the defense announced news that left everyone stunned: Darren Mack had agreed to a deal -- and would plead guilty.
Judge: Okay. As to Count (1), murder in the first degree, how do you plead?
Darren Mack: I'm accepting the guilty plea.
Judge: So you plead guilty to Count (1)?
Darren Mack: Yes, sir.
He pleaded guilty to shooting the judge as well. Mack's lawyers said they convinced Darren to take the deal so he could avoid a potential life sentence in prison. Under terms of the plea, Mack could be paroled in 20 years. Also, Darren Mack was assured that he'd finally be able to tell the world his story at sentencing.
Darren Mack: Because there are some very important things I would like to share because I have remained quiet through his whole thing. I would like to come forward and speak, and it was represented that I would have that with your honor?
Darren's family, which had shelled out more than a million dollars for a defense, was in shock.
Victoria Corderi, Dateline NBC: Did you want him to take the plea?
Landon Mack: Absolutely not. We did everything we could to talk him out if it.
But a little more than a month before the sentencing date came a bombshell from Darren Mack. He had fired his attorneys and told the court he wanted out of the deal.
Victoria Campbell: It wasn't just big news. It was cataclysmic.
This case was far from over. Mack hired a new lawyer named William Routsis, a former semi-pro boxer, who immediately jumped into this case swinging.
William Routsis: What happened to Darren was a manifest injustice. They destroyed the man's character.
Routsis filed motion after motion with the court, making incredible allegations and demanding that Mack be given a new trial.
William Routsis: Everybody's going to look back and say, "My god. They made a monster of a man."
The judge scheduled a hearing. Could Darren Mack get out of his plea deal and win a new trial? At least one thing seemed certain --Darren Mack finally would tell his story.
Judge: "We will be on the record with State of Nevada versus Darren Roy Mack..."
With a new attorney by his side, Darren Mack came to court ready to unleash a series of incredible allegations in an effort to convince the judge to let him take back his guilty plea and get a new trial.
Attorney William Routsis: Darren, did you want a fair trial?
Darren Mack: Absolutely. That's what I’ve wanted from as soon as these events happened. All I wanted to do is come back, tell the truth.
Mack told the court he never got the chance to tell his truth before a jury because his former attorneys abandoned him in the middle of the trial and coerced him into taking the plea deal.
Darren Mack: It was like a psychological rape. I mean, I have a whole new relationship to compassion for women who are raped. It's not just the sex that's taken from them. It's their will. And that is like one of the most horrifying things to have your will taken from you.
Mack said once the prosecution rested its case, his former attorneys, David Chesnoff and Scott Freeman, launched an all out assault on his psyche.
Darren Mack: Scott just turned and put the full court pressure on me. Saying, "This is a good deal. You have to take this, Darren. I'm trying to save your life. Don't you see? Tru-- you've got to trust us."
Mack said they berated him during mock cross-examination, told him his witnesses were dropping out. That his case was hopeless.
Darren Mack: And that's when I felt my will-- that's when I felt my will break.
Mack said his attorneys broke his will easily because he was dehydrated, suffering from paralyzing back pain, and was sleep deprived -- all caused by poor jail conditions.
Attorney William Routsis: How many hours would you say you were sleeping during the 27-day period?
Darren Mack: On an average I would assume it was two to three. It wasn't good sleep.
Additionally, Mack says he told his lawyers that he ditched the gun that he claims misfired when Charla allegedly tried to shoot him. But when he urged them to look for it, he says, they refused.
Darren Mack: I said, but we've got to get the gun. Because that corroborates my self-defense claim of what happened in the garage. We can figure out what caused the misfire. And it will corroborate everything I said. And he refused.
But why would Mack’s former attorneys force him to take a plea? Mack's girlfriend, Alecia Biddison, says it was because they botched his case so badly by arguing self-defense and insanity at the same time, when a person has to be sane to act in self defense.
David Chesnoff: Darren Mack was suffering from a recognized mental disorder...
Alecia Biddison: What he was arguing was not temporary insanity. He was arguing that Darren was insane prior to the death of Charla. He, in my opinion, completely undermined the self-defense.
Mack's new lawyer, William Routsis, told the judge that not only was the plea coerced, but Darren Mack had never signed the agreement in the first place. His signature, he said, was forged.
In response, Mack’s former attorneys -- Scott Freeman and David Chesnoff -- were into hauled into court to answer the allegations. In a highly unusual move, Mack waived the attorney-client privilege in order to force them to answer questions.
First up, Scott Freeman. He told the judge the plea agreement was not forged.
Christopher Lalli: Did you actually see him sign it?
Scott Freeman: I did.
Christopher Lalli: You watched him do that?
Scott Freeman: He did it in open court.
As far as looking for the gun, Mack’s attorneys said they couldn't find it, and there was a good reason not to keep searching for it.
Scott Freeman: To me, throwing the gun out is inconsistent with self-defense. It is consistent with premeditation. So, I didn't want to go there.
Next, both Freeman and Chesnoff denied each one of Darren Mack’s allegations and told the judge that they never forced Mack to take the plea deal.
Christopher Lalli: Was he told that he had to take the plea?
Scott Freeman: No, he was not.
Christopher Lalli: Did you ever force the defendant to plead guilty?
David Chesnoff: No.
Christopher Lalli: Did you ever coerce him in any way to enter the plea that he did?
David Chesnoff: No, I didn't coerce him.
Then, prosecutor Christopher Lalli asked Mack two simple questions.
Attorney Christopher Lalli: You were responsible for the death of Charla Mack?
Darren Mack: I said partially, yes.
Attorney Christopher Lalli: And you were responsible-- you're the person who shot Judge Weller, correct?
Darren Mack: That is correct.
Finally, after four days of testimony, the judge was ready to rule.
Judge Herndon: There is just no way in my mind that I can conceptualize somebody thinks that they can plead guilty to the-- to first-degree murder and somehow say, "I didn't commit a murder." It's belied by the record, and it belies and defies logic.
With that, the judge denied Darren Mack’s request to withdraw his guilty plea. But Mack wasn't through arguing his case.
At his sentencing, instead of asking the judge for mercy, Mack spent hours, once again trying to convince him that he stabbed Charla in self-defense and that his plea was coerced.
Darren Mack: It's like-- it's-- sorry I'm so frustrated. I'm just like this is like I'm waiting for somebody to go, "Hey, you're on Candid Camera." This is all completely a joke.
He lashed out at Christopher Lalli when the prosecutor challenged his version of events that led to stabbing of his wife and shooting of the judge.
Darren Mack: Were you in the garage and were you in those rooms with-- as Chuck Weller, when he was extorting me? You weren't. And you talk like you know what you're talking about. You really don't. You have no clue.
He then proceeded to tell everyone in the courtroom that he was a victim too. That Charla's mother and brother were not the only ones who suffered a loss on that tragic June day.
Darren Mack: But the thing you don't-- A lot of people don't recognize-- I lost a wife, too. And even, though that this happened, I still loved Charla. I just couldn't live with her, and I was afraid of her.
Victoria Corderi, Dateline NBC: You looked like you were going to jump off the seat.
Chris Broughton: I had to use all of my willpower to hold myself back.
Victoria Corderi: Were you hoping to hear remorse? Or--
Soorya Townley: No.
Victoria Corderi: --pain on his part.
Soorya Townley: No. I knew he was so locked in at that point, I knew I wasn't going to get anything.
Judge:"Mr. Mack I sentence you to life in the Nevada Department of Prisons..."
The judge sentenced Darren Mack to life in prison with the possibility for parole after 36 years.
Chris Broughton: He must remain caged like an animal until he dies.
In a jailhouse interview with "In Session," on cable TV, Mack painted himself the victim and added the prosecutor and the judge to his list of those who are out wrong him. He's now forging ahead with an appeal, trying to get another trial.
Darren Mack: I just want to get up on a stand, in front of 12 people, and tell the truth. And if that gets me a conviction, because they don't believe it, so be it.
Mack says he's willing to roll the dice with a jury, hoping he will win.
Victoria Corderi: Would you be ready to take it on again?
Christopher Lalli: Oh, absolutely.
Robert Daskas: The evidence hasn't changed. The motive doesn't change. None of that ever changes. Darren Mack should be careful what he wishes for.
It's been two years since this tragedy and the one involving the Nevada State Controller made their ugly marks on the Reno community. And although the clouds from these scandalous storms have cleared, the scars remain in a place known as the Biggest Little City In The World.
Charla Mack's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Darren Mack, and was awarded a staggering $590 million -- one of the largest jury awards in Nevada state history. Mack says he does not have the money to pay.
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