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Published November 30, 2010, 07:51 PM

Lawyer: Fargo Murder-for-hire Suspect Was Framed

An Oklahoma handyman accused of beating a Fargo dentist to death with a hammer in a murder-for-hire scheme was framed, his attorney said during opening statements in the man's trial Tuesday.

By: Dave Kolpack, Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — An Oklahoma handyman accused of beating a Fargo dentist to death with a hammer in a murder-for-hire scheme was framed, his attorney said during opening statements in the man's trial Tuesday.

Michael Nakvinda of Oklahoma City is accused of killing Philip Gattuso in Gattuso's Fargo townhome last year in exchange for $3,000 from Gattuso's former father-in-law, Gene Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick reportedly was unhappy with the way Gattuso was raising his granddaughter.

Nakvinda has pleaded not guilty to charges of intentional homicide, robbery, burglary and theft. Judge Frank Racek said Tuesday that trial should last between six and nine days.

Defense attorney Steven Mottinger said Kirkpatrick, the father of Gattuso's late wife, Valerie, devised the plan to frame Nakvinda. Mottinger told the jury of nine women and three men that Nakvinda wasn't even in Fargo when the October 2009 murder was committed.

Nakvinda "got betrayed and he got framed for a murder he didn't commit," Mottinger said.

Cass County prosecutors said they expect Kirkpatrick to testify that he told Nakvinda how he felt about Gattuso and that Nakvinda said he could "take care of it" for $100,000. Kirkpatrick agreed to pay Nakvinda $3,000, but said in an interview with lawyers that "he never told Mike Nakvinda to do this," prosecutor Mark Boening said.

Kirkpatrick has pleaded not guilty to a murder conspiracy charge. The state has not made a deal with him in exchange for his testimony, Boening said.

Boening told jurors that Nakvinda repeatedly struck Gattuso in the head with a hammer, a sight that made investigators first believe Gattuso had been shot. Nakvinda stole some electronic equipment and Gattuso's Porsche, which he loaded onto a rented trailer behind a pickup, Boening said.

Records show Nakvinda rented both the trailer and a storage garage in Oklahoma City, where the Porsche was found. A hammer with Gattuso's blood and hair on it was found in car, Boening said.

A witness will testify that Nakvinda said at one point "he would use a hammer to take care of Gene Kirkpatrick's problem," Boening said.

Mottinger said there's no physical evidence tying Nakvinda to the crime scene.

"The state's case is, at best, circumstantial," the defense lawyer said.

Boening acknowledged prosecutors do not have DNA evidence tying Nakvinda to the crime scene.

"We're not going to hide," Boening said. "We have not been able to find Nakvinda's DNA inside the residence."

Mottinger said the Kirkpatrick family didn't like Gattuso because he didn't sign off on an experimental treatment for Valerie Gattuso, who died in March 2009 after an extended illness. The "last straw" was when Philip Gattuso took his 3-year-old daughter back to Fargo following Valerie's death, Mottinger said.

Mottinger said Nakvinda became friends with Kirkpatrick after working for him as a handyman. Around the time Gattuso was killed, Mottinger said, Kirkpatrick asked Nakvinda to drive to North Dakota to pick up a Porsche that Kirkpatrick bought over the Internet. Nakvinda picked up the car in Wahpeton, about 50 miles south of Fargo, Mottinger said.

Jury selection lasted most of the day Tuesday. Prosecutor Ryan Younggren went down the line with potential jurors and asked them if they would feel comfortable basing their verdicts on circumstantial evidence.

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