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Collinge’s lawyers ask jury to convict him of negligent homicide, not murder

Dale Collinge of Pembroke sits at his motions hearing; Tuesday, Aril 16, 2013. Collinge has been charged with killing his girlfriend.

(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

Dale Collinge of Pembroke sits at his motions hearing; Tuesday, Aril 16, 2013. Collinge has been charged with killing his girlfriend. (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

Dale Collinge’s lawyers asked the jury yesterday to find him guilty – but not of the crime he has been charged with.

In closing arguments, attorney Donna Brown conceded that the Pembroke man committed negligent homicide Nov. 13, 2011, when he shot his girlfriend in the moments after she pointed the rifle at him and pulled the trigger. But she told the jury that prosecutors hadn’t proven he consciously disregarded a known risk that night, an element necessary to convict him of second-degree murder.

The jury mulled the argument – as well as the prosecutors’ assertion Collinge deliberately pulled the trigger and told investigators he wanted to scare Boelzner like she had scared him – for about 3½ hours yesterday. They will continue deliberating at 9 a.m. today at Merrimack County Superior Court.

Negligent homicide

Before Brown was allowed to argue for a negligent homicide conviction yesterday, Judge Richard McNamara warned Collinge that he would essentially be pleading guilty to that crime. Collinge, who did not take the stand in his own defense, agreed to his attorneys’ decision.

Over the course of the four-day trial, the defense team has argued there was nothing conscious about how Collinge reacted to finding the woman he loved, and who he knew to be at times suicidal and unstable, pointing a rifle at him. When Collinge’s knees buckled beneath him in the moment he heard a click, he suffered psychological trauma so severe that his “brain failed,” Brown said yesterday, rendering him unaware of his actions and unable to accurately record memories.

As proof, they’ve pointed to numerous times in Collinge’s recorded statement with investigators when he wavered over whether he remembered working the rifle’s bolt or pulling the trigger and referred to the incident as a “blur.” The jurors have heard testimony that Collinge was an avid hunter who taught his children about gun safety, and Brown said a man with that background would have never deliberately pointed a gun at his girlfriend.

“That was not Dale who shot Karen, at least not at a conscious level,” Brown said. “Because a Dale Collinge who is acting at a conscious level, who was thinking, wouldn’t have pointed that gun, wouldn’t have pulled that trigger. Because he knew better. It’s proof that he wasn’t thinking. He was reacting.”

But Assistant Attorney General Peter Hinckley also highlighted Collinge’s familiarity with firearms in his closing statement, saying his awareness of gun safety proves it was no accident when he disregarded those precautions that night. He said some tenets of firearm use, like always assuming a gun is loaded, are so basic that even Collinge’s intoxication that night wouldn’t have caused him to forget.

“The point isn’t that he didn’t think the gun was loaded. The point, what this case is about, is that he never checked. Basic safety,” Hinckley said. “He didn’t know that it was unloaded when he manipulated that bolt. He didn’t know that it was unloaded when he aimed that gun from just feet away. He didn’t know that it was unloaded when he pulled that trigger.”

‘Psychobabble’

Prosecutors don’t buy the notion that Collinge was so traumatized by Boelzner’s unprovoked actions that his brain malfunctioned, and yesterday Hinckley called the theory “psychobabble.” He said Collinge told eight people that he was aware of manipulating the rifle’s bolt and pulling the trigger and pointed to the testimony of a state police investigator, who said Collinge’s self-reported memory loss appeared more pronounced after he was told he was under arrest. He said the defense attorneys have painted Boelzner as a “pill-popping nut job” and blamed her for Collinge’s actions.

For the first time, Hinckley also raised doubt about an essential element of Collinge’s story: that Boelzner first pointed the gun at him.

He reminded the jury of testimony about Collinge’s unusual hunting practice of loading one bullet at a time, then said the bullet that shot Boelzner was the only one in the gun that night.

“The killing: one round, one shot. Just like his unique practice,” Hinckley said. “You have good reason to believe that the defendant’s drunken gunplay that night was even more reckless than he would admit to.
. . . But because he killed the only eyewitness to what he did, we’re limited to what he would admit to. But what he would admit to is more than enough to prove reckless murder.”

The options

Second-degree murder includes a level of recklessness (consciously disregarding a known risk) and also showing an extreme indifference to the value of human life. The next lesser homicide charge of manslaughter includes recklessness but not the other element.

The charge below that, negligent homicide, indicates a person failed to become aware of a substantial risk and acted in a way that a reasonable person wouldn’t.

If the jury downgrades the charge to that from second-degree murder, Collinge’s possible sentence would drop from up to life incarceration to 3½ to seven years in state prison.

Brown warned the jury that if they were divided between second-degree murder and negligent homicide, they shouldn’t split the difference by convicting Collinge of manslaughter.

“Compromise is easy. It’s tempting,” she said. “But in this scenario, it’s wrong. . . . The problem with compromise is when you do it, and you’re a moral person, it will eat at you.”

(Tricia L. Nadolny can be reached at 369-3306 or
tnadolny@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @tricia_nadolny.)

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