Wake prosecutors told a jury Thursday that Nathan Holden deserved the death sentence because of one aggravating factor: He embarked on a violent course of conduct when he murdered his in-laws, Angelia and Sylvester Taylor, and tried to kill his former wife LaTonya in 2014.
“He shot Angelia. He shot Sylvester. He shot LaTonya, then he beat her up,” said assistant district attorney Jason Waller. “Then he goes and drops his car off, gets a buddy to drop him at his house, to do what? Reload. That’s violence.”
But Holden’s defense attorneys asked the jury to take into account how he grew up: with teen parents who fought frequently in a household riddled by alcohol and crack cocaine abuse.
“Nate had been with LaTonya since middle school,” Jonathan Broun told the jury while pleading with them to spare his life. “LaTonya was the one that allowed him to get away from a violent and chaotic family. She provided him with normalcy and showed him what real love is... and now we know how the story of Nate Holden will end. You will now decide how it will end. Punish him with compassion.”
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Thursday marked the third day of the trial’s sentencing phase after a jury on Monday found Holden guilty of first-degree murder for the killings of his in-laws in Wendell on April 9, 2014. He also was found guilty of attempting to kill LaTonya Holden while the couple’s three children hid in a bedroom closet.
If the jury spares his life, Nathan Holden would spend the rest of his life in prison. The jury heard closing arguments in the sentencing phase Thursday afternoon and will begin deliberations Friday morning.
On Wednesday, Duke psychologist Dr. Jonathan Blackshear, who had been evaluating Holden since 2015, told the jury that he did not deserve to be put to death because he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by a tough childhood rife with bloody domestic violence, family instability, parental drug and alcohol abuse, and violence in the community where he lived. Blackshear concluded that the volatile elements in Holden’s formative years constituted “complex trauma” and the most devastating trauma may have been the breakup of his own marriage.
Wake prosecutor Matt Lively countered that argument Thursday afternoon by using a power point presentation that questioned if Holden suffered from PTSD. Lively the the version of events Holden shared with the psychologist wasn’t credible and not consistent with the evidence.
Lively also pointed out that the psychologist’s use of the “complex trauma” theory is not discussed in the DSM-V, long considered the Bible of medical diagnoses. He said even if Holden suffered from PTSD, “it’s not an excuse to commit first-degree murder.”
Lively noted that several of Holden’s family members had experienced the same alcoholism, violence and instability.
“Most people move on with their lives,” he said. “It affected them, too. But they are not here.”
Holden’s former wife, who has since remarried, hugged her husband and an older family member while Waller showed the jury a photo of Angelia as she lay on a bedroom floor, dead of a single gunshot wound to her chest.
“Angelia was an innocent bystander. She just happened to be there, and he pulled the trigger and shot her in the heart,” Waller told the jury. “She had just gotten back from church.”
Then Waller showed the jury a photo of Sylvester Taylor as he lay dead in the back yard of his home.
“The first shot hit Sylvester, and he took off running out the door, shot four times,” Waller said. “Not once, not twice, not three times, but four times shot and left to die.”
Waller said Holden’s children were just inches away from their mother when he shot her.
“They will remember that for the rest of their lives,” Waller said. “Talking about loving his kids and wanting to be a family... That’s not love.”
Prosecutors bolstered their argument that Holden embarked on a violent course of conduct by pointing out that Holden’s deadly crimes did not end with the fatal shooting of his in-laws or the near murder of his former wife. He also fired at deputies who tracked him down in an open field behind his home in Wendell.
Waller noted a defense witness testified that Holden was lying prone at the edge of a wooded area, praying while sheriff’s deputies approached him. No so, the prosecutor said. Holden “was in a place where you ambush someone.” When the deputies got around a blind curve and approached Holden about 20 feet away, “he raised his right hand and fired.”
“It’s a continuous pattern of violence,” Waller said. “Someone firing from that distance has one intent, to inflict violence.”
Broun, the defense attorney, said Holden’s grim childhood did not excuse his crimes, but it did offer the jury insight into why he committed the acts. He said Holden tried to be a different person than his parents.
“He married. He tried to be a part of his children’s lives,” Broun said. “He was not a perfect father. He was not a perfect husband. But if you grow up in a home with a mom who has cognitive problems, it can leave scars. Where your father regularly beat your mother, it’s going to leave scars, not only on the mother, but on the children. Nate never had professional help. He tried to do his best. But there were scars.”
Broun said the enormity of what happened with the shootings overwhelmed Holden while he lay in the woods as the sheriff’s deputies approached and that his firing at the officers “sounds like someone trying to commit suicide by cop instead of someone trying to escape.”
The irony, Broun said, was that Holden on the night of the shootings, felt like he was losing everything.
“Looking back, now he realizes he hadn’t lost his family,” he said. “But now, he’s lost his family.”