Higgs attempts suicide after testifying
June 26, 2007
RENO – A man accused of killing his wife – former Nevada Controller Kathy Augustine – attempted suicide by slashing his wrists a day after testifying in his defense, authorities said Tuesday.
Washoe County District Judge Steven Kosach suspended the trial after Chaz Higgs was found early Tuesday in a Reno apartment he shared with his mother.
Defense attorney David Houston said Higgs slit his wrists during the night with a knife and was taken to a Reno hospital. Higgs was in jail under suicide watch late Tuesday after being treated for ” very bad gashes” on both wrists, Houston said.
Higgs, 43, had been expected to face tough questioning from prosecutors Tuesday, after testifying Monday that he was innocent and that he loved Augustine even though he had decided to leave her.
Instead, Kosach sent jurors home, telling them Higgs had been “injured.” The judge also revoked Higgs’ $250,000 bail and ordered both sides to return to court Wednesday.
Higgs, a critical care nurse, is accused of killing his 50-year-old wife by injecting her with succinylcholine – a powerful muscle relaxant used to immobilize patients before breathing tubes are inserted. The defense contends she died of heart failure.
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Houston insisted Higgs’ suicide attempt wasn’t motivated by a fear of cross-examination. He said it had been difficult for Higgs to relive his wife’s death on the witness stand Monday.
“His goal was to clear his name and then to join his wife,” Houston told reporters. “He felt he cleared his name yesterday.”
But prosecutor Tom Barb questioned Higgs’ motives.
“You guys can make the call whether he did it (attempted suicide) to avoid cross-examination,” Barb told reporters. “Every time the pressure is on he does something strange.”
Three days after Augustine died on July 11, Higgs tried to commit suicide in the couple’s Las Vegas home. He was found, along with a note, by Augustine’s daughter. Higgs was released from the hospital the same day and did not attend his wife’s funeral.
Houston said he would ask the judge to allow Higgs to face cross-examination by prosecutors on Thursday.
“As of this moment, he’s requesting to continue the process,” Houston said. “His issue is not about the trial. It’s an issue concerning his wife and frankly he doesn’t want to be here without her.”
Houston said Higgs left a suicide note similar to the one he wrote before his earlier suicide attempt. In it, Higgs wrote that he felt like he had fulfilled his destiny after testifying on Monday and wanted to rejoin the wife he “misses so much,” Houston said.
Higgs pleaded not guilty to murder in December. If convicted, he faces up to life in prison without chance of parole.
Since being granted bail earlier this year, Higgs had been sharing an apartment with his mother, Shirley Higgs, who relocated from North Carolina to lend him support. His twin brother also was in the apartment at the time.
Houston said Shirley Higgs awoke after hearing Chaz Higgs fall in the kitchen and found her son with his wrists slashed. Paramedics were able to restore Higgs’ blood pressure.
Phil Alfano, Augustine’s brother, called Higgs’ suicide attempt “just another act” and a sympathy ploy. He said he thought Higgs did poorly on the stand and wanted to avoid further questioning.
“In my opinion, it was planned and the whole motive was to delay the trial,” Alfano said. “If he wanted to kill himself, he could do it. He’s a cold, calculating SOB and that’s all there is to it.”
Houston denied the accusation.
“He had nothing to worry about as far as cross-examination. He’s telling the truth,” Houston said.
At the time of her death, Augustine was campaigning for state treasurer, but without the support of the state Republican Party. As state controller, she had been impeached by the Nevada Assembly, convicted by the Senate for using state equipment on her 2002 campaign and censured, but she had not been removed from office.
Higgs, who said he wasn’t comfortable in the political arena, testified that he made his decision to leave Augustine when she told him she planned a comeback run for treasurer.