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Montevideo, Minn., man to stand trial for murder of co-worker

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MONTEVIDEO -- Darek Nelson will stand trial on a first-degree murder charge that carries a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of release.

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A district judge's ruling filed Monday denies a petition by Nelson, 25, of Montevideo, to plead guilty to a lesser, second-degree murder charge for the fatal stabbing of Vinessa Lozano, 18, on Jan. 13 in Montevideo.

District Judge Dwayne Knutsen found that there was not a sufficient basis for the court to accept a plea to second-degree murder over the objection of the prosecution.

Defense attorney Greg Holmstrom had argued that Nelson's post-arrest diagnosis of the development disorder Asperger's syndrome would allow the court to accept a plea to a lesser offense.

The National Institutes of Health says Asperger's is an autism spectrum disorder and is characterized by impairment in language and communication skills, as well as repetitive or restrictive patterns of thought and behavior.

"The defense is not asking the court to find Asperger's disorder is a defense to the crime of murder, instead we are asking the court to find the mental incapacity is a mitigating factor and accept a plea to a lesser offense,'' Holmstrom stated in a motion to the court.

"The defendant has been found competent and there is evidence that he understood the clear consequences of his acts,'' wrote the judge in a memorandum attached to his order. "The Court finds no abuse of discretion by the prosecution in rejecting the defendant's plea to a lesser offense.''

The court must still rule on whether the defense can raise the issue of Asperger's syndrome during the trial. Prosecutors Dave Gilbertson, Chippewa County attorney, and Robert Plesha, with the Minnesota Attorney General's office, have a motion before the court seeking to prevent it from being raised.

In the recent order, the court found that there was sufficient evidence to go forward against Nelson with first- and second-degree murder and second-degree assault charges. The ruling follows a Nov. 16 hearing.

The order also denied a petition by the defense to suppress statements Nelson allegedly made when interviewed by a Montevideo police sergeant on the night of the stabbing, as well as a statement Nelson made when handcuffed at the scene.

"The defendant made a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver to his right to counsel,'' the judge stated in the order.

The state alleges that Nelson, in the videotaped interview that lasts about one hour and 40 minutes, "casually, calmly, and in detail, explained how he planned to kill Vinessa Lozano and why he murdered her.''

A grand jury indicted Nelson on the first-degree murder charge in May. He was originally charged with second-degree murder and two counts of second-degree assault. Only a grand jury can bring the first-degree charge.

Nelson remains in custody on $1 million bail.

In offering to plead guilty to second-degree murder, court records show that Nelson would have accepted a maximum sentence requiring that he serve 32Zc years in prison. " ... Essentially a life sentence for a 25-year-old,'' the defense attorney stated in the petition. He noted that a lengthy sentence effectively reduces life expectancy by 16 years.

The complaint charges that Nelson attacked Lozano with a hunting knife as they left their work at the Pizza Ranch restaurant in Montevideo. Nelson allegedly was upset that Lozano had not returned his interest in her.

She suffered 33 knife wounds, and was pronounced deceased at the Chippewa County-Montevideo Hospital in Montevideo.

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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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