ELKO — Through tears, Linda Fields thanked her attorney Brian Green, who helped her beat a first-degree murder charge Friday and a life sentence.
Fields was tried for murdering or ordering the murder of Jaromir Palensky and dumping his body in the Jordan River in Utah.
But a jury disagreed that she committed first-degree murder and found the defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
“This is without a doubt a victory,” Green said after the trial.
Fields, who will be sentenced in a few months, faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison — of which she’s already served several.
She was convicted of Palensky’s murder in 2007 and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, but the Nevada Supreme Court remanded the case back to district court in 2012, saying certain trial evidence could have biased the jury.
Green said he didn’t expect the jury to return the verdict it did.
During closing arguments, however, he told jurors if they believed the testimony of Niqua Walker — Fields’ sister-in-law, who said Fields admitted to killing Palensky because he molested her grandchild — then voluntary manslaughter was the appropriate verdict.
Deputy District Attorney Rob Lowe countered at the time, arguing voluntary would be a “discount” for Fields, which he said she didn’t deserve.
Green credited a private investigator, Mike Kolsch, for honing in on the importance of Walker’s testimony, he said.
Fields’ husband, Vern, was also found guilty in 2007 of murdering and conspiring to murder Palensky.
Linda Fields’ verdict complicates her husband’s conviction, Green said, because if Linda Fields’ killed Palensky without premeditation, then Vern Fields couldn’t have killed or conspired to kill the victim.
After a few minutes, Fields sat down and took a deep breath. She respectfully declined to comment.
Every aspect of the trial was lengthy: Jury selection, testimony and closing arguments.
The 12-person panel returned the verdict Friday evening after deliberating and sifting through heaps of evidence.
Palensky was last seen alive by any known witnesses mid-December, 2003, on a ranch where he worked for the Fields.
His body was found Jan. 14, 2004, floating face-down in a section of the Jordan River in Utah’s Salt Lake Valley. An autopsy examination revealed he sustained four significant hits to the back of his head with a blunt object, which proved to be fatal.
The prosecution alleges Fields carefully plotted Palensky’s death to cash in on a $300,000 insurance policy for which she was the beneficiary.
“The recovery scene in the Jordan River was a staged homicide scene. He wasn’t killed in Utah. There was no way,” Lowe said during closing arguments.
Lowe told the jury Fields needed Palensky’s dead body to be recovered and identified but not on the ranch.
“(She thought) ‘Utah. That’s where (Palensky)’s from. … He’s got property there,’” Lowe said. “… If you toss him in the Jordan River … maybe a stranger will find him.”
When authorities recovered Palensky’s body, they found his wallet with an ID and other items in his pants pocket. No money was inside it. They also found a small note with the Fields’ name on it and a telephone number.
In 2002, Palensky was sentenced to prison on a DUI offense. Before he was incarcerated, he gave Fields power of attorney so she could take care of a few of his financial obligations.
With power of attorney, Fields was able to fill out the application for a $300,000 accidental death or dismemberment insurance policy for Palensky, and she signed his name at the bottom.
Lowe argued Fields signed Palensky’s name to avoid suspicion.
“It might raise eyebrows,” Lowe said.
Palensky was granted parole around October 2003, and he moved onto the Fields’ ranch. After the victim’s body was recovered, the Fields told investigators the last time they saw Palensky was around Dec. 19. Because of his constant drinking, Palensky wasn’t a productive worker and the Fields fired him, according to trial testimony.
Lowe suggested Palensky was the ideal victim. He was a European immigrant, a gambler and a felon, who no one was looking out for — but he had some assets.
“The perfect choice,” Lowe said. “No nearby relatives looking for a heated investigation. Just some old drunk who would not be missed.”
The prosecutor said he didn’t buy the defense’s claim that Palensky was the victim of a robbery in Salt Lake City.
“What killer/robber is so polite that they kill you, take the money out of your wallet and then replace your wallet into your pants?” Lowe asked. “Does that make any sense?”
Furthermore, Lowe asked the jury to question the likelihood someone would be driven to murder for a pair of snow boots.
But maybe he was robbed for his other wallet, Green argued. A defense witness testified that Palensky was known to hide a second wallet in his boot, which could account for why Palensky was found without money and bootless.
Green reminded the jury of testimony given by Gregory Cooper, who said Palensky’s reported leisure activities — such as drinking and gambling — put him at a higher risk than most people of being a victimized by a stranger.
Green said Palensky could have hitched a ride to Utah where he met his fate.
Brent Adamson, who was a detective with the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office, said he couldn’t rule out Palensky was killed during a robbery.
The defense said evidence was insufficient.
By way of analogy, Green asked jurors to reflect on “The Three Little Pigs,” a classic children’s tale in which three pigs use material of various strength to build their homes.
A case, he said, is built out of pieces of evidence, but unless the evidence is strong and solid — such as a brick — the case will not withstand a gust of scrutiny.
“The more you think about (the state’s case), the less sense it makes,” he said.
Green named pieces of evidence presented at trial and suggested their strength. Most he said, were like straw, the weakest building material. None, he said, were bricks.
During closing arguments, the prosecutor read transcripts of recorded jail phone conversations between Fields and her husband, which were also played for the jury at trial.
In one tape, Fields told her husband he needed to “take full responsibility of that.”
In another, it sounded as if Fields were coaching her husband to tell authorities he knew nothing about the crime.
In yet another, she told Vern Fields he needed to “take this out of state.”
Fields also told her husband that a different ranch hand was responsible.
As for the phone calls, Green said of all the hours of recorded conversations, the prosecution carefully selected segments, which the jury heard out of context.
Green reminded the jury that no direct evidence linked Fields to the crime.
Lowe said circumstantial evidence is good evidence and the law doesn’t distinguish between the weight of circumstantial evidence and direct evidence.
Each piece of evidence might not mean much when looked in isolation — but together, he said, the evidence points to the culprit.
“The defendant is guilty of first-degree murder,” he said, pointing directly at Fields, seated at the defendant’s table.
Lowe quickly left the courtroom after the verdict was read, and was unable to be reached for comment.