North Dakota Supreme Court rejects appeal of man convicted in Fargo murder-for-hire scheme

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FARGO, North Dakota — The North Dakota Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by an Oklahoma man convicted of hiring a hit man to kill his son-in-law in North Dakota.

Gene Kirkpatrick asked to have his conviction overturned because he believes his trial lawyer was mistaken in advising him to not testify. Kirkpatrick, of Jones, Oklahoma, went to the high court after a state judge denied his petition for a new trial.

East Central District Judge Steven Marquart told lawyers Friday that he denied Kirkpatrick's appeal after prosecutors testified that his trial lawyer, Mack Martin, is an accomplished lawyer with 35 years of experience as a criminal prosecutor. Kirkpatrick didn't protest the decision to stay off the stand and Martin had outlined the pitfalls that come with testimony and cross-examination, prosecutors said.

Kirkpatrick's current lawyer, Monty Mertz, said his client and Martin had a "strong disagreement" about whether he should testify. Kirkpatrick felt Martin "changed course 180 degrees and convinced and coerced Kirkpatrick" not to testify, Mertz said.

Mertz and Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.

Kirkpatrick was convicted in July 2011 of conspiracy to commit murder and burglary for the slaying of his son-in-law, Philip Gattuso, who beaten to death in his home in October 2009.

Kirkpatrick's daughter, Valerie Gattuso, had died in March 2009 after an extended illness. Prosecutors said during trial that Kirkpatrick wanted Gattuso killed because he thought he was a poor parent to his granddaughter.

It's the second appeal that Kirkpatrick has lost with the state Supreme Court. He argued in 2012 that jurors should have been asked to consider a lesser charge because he was still grieving his daughter's death

Kirkpatrick is serving a life prison term at the South Dakota State Penitentiary. His granddaughter lives with relatives in Louisiana.

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