Betsy Hanks convicted of, sentenced for 2009 murder
Betsy Marie Hanks, 26, was found guilty by a Beltrami County jury Tuesday afternoon of first-degree and second-degree murder.
She was sentenced by Beltrami County District Judge Paul Benshoof to life imprisonment without the possibility of release.
Hanks, formerly of rural Kelliher, now in custody in the Beltrami County Jail, was convicted of the Oct. 20, 2009, shooting death of 27-year-old Matthew David Albert, her partner and her four sons' father.
Prior to sentencing, a victim impact statement was read on behalf of Albert's twin sister, Melissa Albert.
"I lost my sense of belonging," Melissa Albert wrote. "He's my twin and that relationship can never be replaced."
"Hopefully, through me, the boys will know their dad," Melissa Albert wrote.
Hanks, who had pleaded not guilty to both charges, declined to make a statement.
In her testimony, Hanks said she did not remember the details of the shooting, but said Albert himself first handled the .22-caliber revolver while lying on the bed and then asked her to put him in a better place.
Annie Claesson-Huseby, chief assistant county attorney for Beltrami County, disputed that Albert was awake immediately before the shooting.
She referenced the final statement that Hanks gave to investigators, in which she said she lay in bed with Albert until he fell asleep.
"You never once said that (Albert) woke up and held that gun," Claesson-Huseby said during cross-examination.
Claesson-Huseby said Hanks waited until Albert fell asleep, put their 3-year-old child in the Chevrolet Suburban outside, returned to the house, retrieved the revolver from its case between the bed and the wall, walked behind a sleeping Albert's back, held the gun "very close" to his head, turned off the safety, closed her eyes and pulled the trigger.
In her final statement to investigators, Hanks said she shot Albert to give their children a better father.
Prosecutors argued that Hanks killed Albert, with premeditation and intent, because she wanted to be with Lyle Gutzke, a man she had met in May 2009.
Hanks and Gutzke had a romantic relationship, prosecutors said.
The defense rejected that, saying Hanks and Gutzke were close friends, but did not have a romantic relationship.
The prosecution said Albert twice on Oct. 19 found Hanks either going to meet Gutzke or with him.
Gutzke's summertime work on an area ranch had been approaching its end, and Hanks was worried about when she would be able to see Gutzke again, Claesson-Huseby argued.
Claesson-Huseby said Albert "had had enough" and began telling people, including two law enforcement professionals, that he was going to leave Hanks.
The two that evening began a long discussion that ended with a mutual agreement: that Hanks would no longer see Gutzke and that Albert would spend more time at home with his family.
The morning of Oct. 20, the two older boys got on the bus for school. Albert then went to a convenience store to buy apple juice, cereal and milk.
While he was gone, Claesson-Huseby said, Hanks called Gutzke.
Hanks said she did not remember doing so, but did not dispute the phone records.
Once Albert got home, he lay down on a mattress on the floor of the master bedroom.
The differences in Hanks' statements were repeatedly pointed out by the prosecution.
Not only did she change her story after being arrested - at one point she claimed the gun discharged when she went to take it away from a child who was playing with it - but the testimony she gave Tuesday also differenced from the final statement she provided to investigators.
Claesson-Huseby said Hanks told investigators that she lay on the bed next to Albert until he fell asleep.
Hanks said she might have said that, but that did not happen. Hanks said Albert did fall asleep, but then woke up long enough to initially handle the gun and tell Hanks he wanted to be in a better, safe place.
Claesson-Huseby asked Hanks to indicate where such events were described in her statements to law enforcement.
Hanks said she probably never told investigators that.
In direct examination, Hanks described a partner who was controlling, possibly verbally abusive and a heavy drinker.
Hanks said he called her lazy, stupid and fat.
Things began to change after their first child was born, Hanks said.
"Matt liked to drink," she said.
She said he would drink quietly by himself and that she comes from a family with alcohol issues, and she knew the effect they could have on children.
She said the agreement she and Albert made Oct. 19 not only stipulated that she would no longer see Gutzke and he would be home more, but that he also would cut back on the drinking.
"It became more important than us," she said of Albert's drinking.
Hanks said Albert did not allow her to work outside their home and required her to call him and check in as she went into town for errands.
"I tried to do everything he asked, but it never seemed to be enough," she said.
She said Albert disapproved of her having girlfriends and said Gutzke was the one true friend she had.
Claesson-Huseby, in cross examination, pointed out that Hanks had held at least six different jobs since Hanks and Albert began having children.
"Matt was very, very mad when I worked those jobs," Hanks said.
Claesson-Huseby also referenced a journal entry in which Hanks wrote: "Matt is a good person"; "He is a decent dad"; and "I just wish he would spend more time with me and the kids."
Nowhere in the journal entry did Hanks write that he was a controlling name-caller, Claesson-Huseby said.
Claesson-Huseby asked if Hanks' relationship with Gutzke was causing stress in her relationship with Albert.
Hanks said the stress was caused because Albert was beginning to believe rumors.
"He was starting to believe strangers over me," she said.
In her closing argument, Claesson-Huseby said the prosecution met all of the elements required for a conviction of first-degree murder, including premeditation and intent.
"Betsy Hanks shot Matthew Albert in the head ... and she shot him at close range," Claesson-Huseby said.
She said Hanks did not check to see if he was alive after she shot him.
"Because she didn't intend to save him," she said.
On premeditation, Claesson-Huseby said, Hanks lay with Albert until he fell asleep and admitted in her statement to investigators that during that time she was trying to figure things out, "Should I or shouldn't I?"
She paced around the house, taking her time until she developed the courage, Claesson-Huseby said.
She took her "verbal" 3-year-old son from the house and strapped him into the five-point harness in the car seat.
"She planned. She prepared," Claesson-Huseby said.
Claesson-Huseby said Hanks shot Albert, then took the gun and left the house. She drove to Mizpah on a lesser-traveled road and tossed the gun into a ditch while her two young children remained in the vehicle.
She called Gutzke several times during that period, before she called 911, including one call that lasted about five and a half minutes, Claesson-Huseby said.
Defense attorney Robert D. Miller argued that the prosecution failed to prove either charge.
Even if the prosecution had been able to prove a romantic relationship between Hanks and Gutzke, there was no proof the two conspired and planned to kill Albert, Miller said.
"Rumors and innuendo do not overcome reasonable doubt," he said. "You need hard evidence."
Miller also argued that the prosecution needed to prove premeditation and intent prior to the shooting, not after.
There was zero proof of planning and preparing for the shooting, he said.
Miller said the prosecution is required to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
"I submit they have woefully and inadequately proven those elements," he said.
The jury disagreed. The jury of eight women and four men was handed the case for deliberation about 12:30 p.m. The verdict was read right before 3 p.m.