ELKO, Nev. — Toni Fratto was articulate and attentive in court Friday until she came to the word "guilty."
Then, the 19-year-old started to cry.
"You willfully and unlawfully, with malice and forethought, did kill and murder another human being," Judge Daniel Papez said, summarizing the crime and her guilty plea to second-degree murder, "in concert with Kody Cree Patten."
Fratto admitted that on March 3, she struck Micaela "Mickey" Costanzo, 16, in the back with a shovel and sat on her legs while Kody Patten cut the girl's throat. When Papez asked if Fratto knew then that Micaela had been killed, she replied:
"No. I was in the car when all of that went down."
The judge then outlined the plea agreement that allowed Fratto to plead guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder. The plea ensured that she couldn't receive a death sentence or a life prison sentence without the possibility of parole.
When she is sentenced April 16, Fratto faces a minimum of 11 years in prison. Her attorney, John Springgate, estimated an 18-year sentence for the murder charge and an enhancement for the use of a dangerous weapon.
Fratto was visibly emotional both when she was advised of the prison time and when she recounted her part in Micaela's death.
As part of Fratto's plea deal, she will testify against the man she once planned to marry during his trial. The judge on Friday scheduled a two-week trial for Patten to begin July 31, according to Patten's attorney, John Ohlson.
Fratto and Patten are accused of taking Micaela, their fellow classmate at West Wendover High School, to a remote desert area near the Utah-Nevada border after Micaela's track practice on March 3.
In court documents, Patten told investigators he twice pushed Micaela to the ground during a fight, the second time causing her to hit her head on a rock. He claimed she then went into "some sort of seizure," he panicked and struck her in the head with a shovel.
Micaela's body was found in a shallow grave on March 5. Patten was arrested days later. Fratto's only tie to the killing was a recorded confession she gave to Patten's attorney nearly two months later.
At a preliminary hearing last year, however, attorneys for Patten and Fratto pointed to the other's client as the primary instigator in Micaela's death.
While no definite motive for the killing has been discussed, Ohlson said Fratto was the catalyst for the assault because she was jealous of Micaela, who was a friend of Patten. "Kody had no motive, no reason," Ohlson said Friday. "This little girl was his childhood friend. He had no beef."
Springgate said Friday he could not comment on what may have motivated his client to participate in the murder, but said the deal was an acknowledgment that Fratto "came forward and is accepting her responsibility in these events."
Fratto's parents, who have said that their daughter fabricated the confession because she loves Patten, said Friday they believe the account she gave in court and that she did have some involvement in Micaela's death.
"Toni is a very courageous and honest person," her mother, Cassie Fratto, said after the hearing. "She couldn't live with this and this was the only right thing to do and she knew that and made this decision herself."
Cassie Fratto said she speaks with her daughter often and believes she is very remorseful about what happened and is determined to see the truth come out. Claude Fratto, the woman's father, said that while he believes his daughter is also a victim, he was pleased with her decision to plead guilty.
"It's very, very difficult, but the family is in full support of this," her father said. "She's doing well. It's a big burden lifted off of her."
At a separate hearing earlier in the day, Patten sat quietly and intently in a red Elko County sheriff's jumpsuit Friday as his attorneys literally argued for his life.
Prosecutors have filed notice that they intend to seek the death penalty against Patten, 18, who is charged with first-degree murder in Micaela's death. Ohlson filed a motion to take the death penalty off the table.
"(This case) relies on one, single aggravating factor," he told Papez, arguing that prosecutors can't use the same aggravating incident to get both a conviction and a death penalty sentence.
In this case, the allegation is that Patten and Fratto killed Micaela at the same time they were committing a kidnapping. Prosecutors plan to use the kidnapping as a factor in a possible conviction of first-degree murder. Jurors could convict a person of that crime if they believe it occurred during the commission of another felony.
Prosecutors also want to use the kidnapping as an aggravated factor during a possible penalty stage to determine whether a death sentence is warranted.6 comments on this story
Prosecutor Mark Torvinen told the judge that the matter is not one to be determined by judges or attorneys.
"That's for the jury to decide," he said.
Papez took the matter under advisement and said he would issue a written ruling.
Ohlson said if not for the death penalty, his client would also have entered into a plea agreement. Prosecutors apparently didn't want to compromise on the death penalty. While talks of a deal "fell apart," Ohlson said he is "always open" to the possibility.
Torvinen declined to comment following either hearing Friday.