FORT DODGE, Iowa — Jurors chosen Tuesday to hear a first-degree murder case in Iowa will be asked to decide whether the mother on trial killed her 20-year-old neighbor in 2001 in self-defense or as part of an apparent plot to frame her first husband for a crime.
Six men and six women will hear the case against Tracey Richter, 45, who now lives in Omaha. Opening statements are expected Wednesday.
Richter's attorney, Scott Bandstra, repeatedly told potential jurors questioned Tuesday that his client shot and killed Dustin Wehde on Dec. 13, 2001 at her home in Early, a small town 100 miles northwest of Des Moines, but did so in self-defense.
He asked jurors whether they kept guns for self-protection or opposed them and whether they would use them to protect their children or judge anyone who did.
"If the evidence shows she was being assaulted at the time, is there anyone here who believes that Ms. Richter should not have protected herself and her children on Dec. 13, 2001?" Bandstra asked.
One man said he would question "was it necessary to go that far?" depending on the circumstances but others did not speak up.
Richter says two men broke into her home and assaulted her before she was able to get guns from a safe and shoot Wehde nine times with two weapons, leaving him dead on her bedroom floor as the second man fled. She said she acted to protect her children, ages 11, 3 and 1.
But prosecutors insist Richter never was a victim.
They say she killed Wehde and planted a notebook in his car suggesting he was a hit man hired by an ex-husband she had feuded with for years. At the time of the killing, they were in a custody dispute over their 11-year-old son.
Richter was charged this year after the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation took a fresh look at the case and developed new evidence, including a forensic expert who concluded the final three shots came as Wehde was face down on the ground.
District Judge Kurt L. Wilke said the trial is expected to last more than a week at the Webster County courthouse in Fort Dodge, where the case was moved after the defense argued Richter could not get a fair trial near Early. Richter, a Chicago native, moved to Early with her second husband Michael Roberts in the late 1990s.
Michael Roberts and Richter have since divorced. He wrote in an email to The Associated Press that he thinks Wehde was "simply a prop" used by Richter in a scheme to frame her first husband. After they filed for divorce in 2004, she later suggested Roberts also could have been involved in the home invasion.
The pink notebook found in the front seat of Wehde's car after his death is expected to be a point of contention at the trial.
In it, Wehde wrote he was hired by a "mysterious fellow" named John Pitman, a Virginia plastic surgeon whose divorce from Richter was finalized in 1996, to kill her and her 11-year-old son, Bert. Investigators have said while the entry was in Wehde's handwriting, they never believed it was credible or that Wehde was actually a hit man, and they kept the existence of the notebook and its contents a secret.
Investigators say that an acquaintance of Pitman later came forward and said Richter told her shortly after the shooting that authorities had found the notebook and would soon be arresting Pitman.