Murder trial testimony over Leigha Ackerson’s mental state sparks dispute
Prosecutors' request for mistrial denied by judge
EAGLE — Testimony on Thursday about the mental conditions of Leigha Ackerson, on trial for first-degree murder for the killing of Catherine Kelley in January 2018, set off a series of strong objections by prosecutors.
At one point in the afternoon, prosecutors asked for a mistrial as Ackerson’s defense attorneys started to delve into her mental state and her troubled childhood with one of their witnesses, a licensed psychologist and forensic evaluator.
The witness, Brenna Tindall, a member of Colorado’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board, testified that she diagnosed Ackerson with post-traumatic stress disorder based on interviews with Ackerson and two family members.
The interviews turned up information Ackerson reported about her childhood that Tindall used in part to help form her diagnosis.
Ackerson reportedly was abused, neglected, homeschooled and isolated, according to her defense attorneys, growing up with parents who were part of an unorthodox religious group some consider a cult, before marrying Jacob White, who became abusive.
Deputy District Attorney Joe Kirwan argued that delving into Ackerson’s childhood should be out of bounds for the trial, and objected to the court’s acceptance of Tindall as an expert witness in the case.
Kirwan argued that evidence of mental conditions are not admissible in a duress defense such as Ackerson’s, saying that Ackerson has the right to appeal if the court makes a mistake to her detriment, while prosecutors have no such recourse. “If this jury turns her loose, we’re done,” Kirwan said at one point.
Ackerson’s defense attorney, Jennifer Henslee, argued Tindall’s report and testimony had been settled by the court already, and was allowed as a part of Ackerson’s defense: That she feared harm or death by her husband as White broke into Kelley’s home and murdered her.
The dispute caused Judge Paul R. Dunkelman to clear the jury from the courtroom and ultimately resulted in Kirwan requesting a mistrial.
Henslee bristled at Kirwan’s statement about Ackerson and the jury “turning her loose,” arguing she is presumed innocent.
“The court has ruled upwards of four times we could present this defense,” Henslee said. “Mr. Kirwan can grandstand and yell all he wants, but we’ve been in trial for nearly three weeks. She has the right to due process, to present a defense in her case, and she has testified and laid the foundation.”
Dunkelman eventually denied the request for a mistrial, later allowing Tindall to return to the stand and testify.
“People have requested a mistrial based on the argument that the court’s ruling or argued lack of ruling on the issue regarding presentation of mental health condition in this trial, and that is not supported by the record,” Dunkelman said.
Ackerson wraps her testimony
Ackerson herself was again on the stand for most of the day as the defense’s first witness in her own murder trial.
Ackerson was first questioned by her other court-appointed defense attorney, Amber St. Clair, and detailed how her husband had abused her.
“It began with open hand slapping, pinning me to walls, holding his hand against my neck, and turned to punching, shoving his hands in my mouth to keep me from talking, holding me to the ground,” Ackerson told the jury.
The abuse became more frequent and by 2016 was happening multiple times a week. It included rape, she said.
According to Ackerson, White broke her nose while they were staying at her brother’s house in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, abused their dog, and at one point killed their two cats at an empty rest area, putting the animals in a sheet and hitting them with a mallet.
Driving to Colorado to “live off the land” in mid-January 2018, White reportedly pulled off onto a dirt road after Ackerson said she had to use the bathroom, according to one incident that she detailed on the stand:
“I got out of the car and Jacob starts yelling at me … says that I’m a terrible woman, that I’m nothing, that all I do is cause problems, all I am is a hassle. He grabs the green knife, the very large one, and he starts holding it to himself, he takes off his shirt, gets out of the car, holds the knife to me. I run for it. I make it about 30 feet before he tackles me and holds the knife to my throat and says he wants me to beg for my life because I don’t deserve to have it. I begged. I laid on the ground and begged. He goes back to the car and races up and looks like he’s going to hit me and last minute he swerves. He gets back out, continues to threaten me, and I just keep apologizing, and he stops after he cuts his chest up a little bit.”
According to Ackerson, White had several personalities she had to identify and properly interact with. “If I didn’t get it right he would get mad and beat me. One was OCD, one claimed to need glasses, another was confident and alway had his shoulders back, the other introverted.”
Ackerson said that she believed divorce from White was never an option based on her upbringing and that she still wanted to be with White after their arrest for Kelley’s murder, though she has since filed to divorce him. “I’ve tried, but I can’t get the papers through to him yet. I’m doing it all on my own and its hard,” she said.
White has already pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary for his role in Kelley’s death — a plea bargain he put forward to prosecutors. White was sentenced to 68 years in prison.
Ackerson was also extensively questioned for several hours Thursday by Assistant District Attorney Heidi McCollum.
Through that questioning, Ackerson acknowledged she had her own thoughts and mind. She also acknowledged there were times when she could have escaped or called 911 for help. Those included times when White left her alone in Kelley’s home and at several stores in Denver and Greeley, where White stopped to buy marijuana in the days before Kelley’s murder, leaving Ackerson alone in the parking lot.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at email@example.com.