A clinical psychologist who has been evaluating Nathan Holden said even though he killed his in-laws and attempted to kill his former wife, LaTonya Holden, he did not accept that his marriage was over until the start of his trial last month, when he saw her sitting in the Wake County courtroom with her new husband.
“Nate had referred to LaTonya as his wife each time I met with him,” Dr. Jonathan Blackshear, an academic dean at Duke University, testified at the sentencing portion of Holden’s capital murder trial Wednesday. “It wasn’t until he saw her with her new husband that he started referring to her by her name and stopped using the term, ‘wife.’ ”
Blackshear concluded that Holden suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by a tough childhood rife with domestic violence, family instability, parental drug and alcohol abuse, the breakup of his parents after they were together for nearly 35 years and violence in the community where he lived.
The most devastating trauma may have been the breakup of his own marriage, Blackshear said. Even after it was over, he said, Holden continued to send his former wife flirtatious letters. “Even after he killed her parents and tried to kill her, Nathan Holden thought somehow, someway, the marriage would prevail,” he said.
Wednesday marked the second 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.
Nathan Holden could be put to death or spend the rest of his life in prison. One of his attorneys, Elizabeth Hambouger, told Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway that the death penalty should not be under consideration because Holden had not planned in advance to kill his wife’s parents, Sylvester and Angelia Taylor, and to beat and shoot her at the Taylor home.
The jury agreed on the question of premeditation, but found Holden guilty of first-degree murder anyway, because the crimes were committed during the course of another felony – the attempt to kill his wife.
Blackshear was called by Holden’s attorneys Wednesday to present mitigating factors that might persuade a jury to spare his life. On Tuesday, prosecutors had told jurors that in addition to killing his in-laws and trying to kill his wife, Holden also exchanged gunfire with sheriff’s deputies who tried to arrest him that night.
Blackshear called Holden’s exchange of gunfire with the deputies an attempt to commit suicide by police, “because of what he had done and because of the pain and horror of what he had done.”
Blackshear said during his formative years Holden did not witness a model on how to deal with loss, pain or hurt without the toxic influence of the alcohol that was consumed by both his parents, or the crack cocaine addiction that riddled his mother’s life.
“He survived, so we can assume the food was enough, the clothes were enough,” he told the court. “But that does not provide a model for how to provide love and care without being inebriated.”
Blackshear said Holden and his two siblings witnessed frequent fights between mom and dad.
“They were regular, bloody and violent,” Blackshear said. “It resulted in mom’s face being disfigured and dad being attacked. They could not break the cycle without the correct intervention. Given that, domestic violence permeated the home as early as Nate can remember, and it didn’t end until Nate was much older.”
The one relationship that Holden could count on was his marriage to his childhood sweetheart.
“One of the things individuals who are going through this formative experience do is to try to get out,” Blackshear said. “You form a normative bond with someone. Nate at a young age did that. He married LaTonya. Her family represented that. It was a two-family home. They attended church... Nate became attached to the family. He was someplace that what you feel like normal is. This is home now.”
Blackshear said Holden has a tendency to minimize trauma as a way of avoiding pain. But that suppressed hostility dating back to his childhood began to surface when his marriage started to unravel and “culminated with the explosive outcome” in 2014.