Man Gets 60 Years for Murder, Rape of Neighbor, 77

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 4, 2008

A D.C. Superior Court judge sentenced a Southeast Washington man yesterday to 60 years in prison for the 2004 rape and murder of his 77-year-old neighbor.

In May, after a four-week trial, a jury found Robert Pettus, 22, guilty of raping and murdering Martha E. Byrd, who lived in the 500 block of Hilltop Terrace SE. Byrd's nude body was found in her bed with a 12-inch knife protruding from her chest. Prosecutors also said Pettus left a handwritten note attached to Byrd's stomach: "You souldns [shouldn't] have cheated on me." Pettus was arrested six days later.

Judge Neal E. Kravitz called the crime "unspeakable" and said Pettus "proved himself utterly incapable of living peacefully in the community."

During the trial, Byrd's family members and friends spoke about the grandmother who raised four sons and who had arthritis and walked with a cane.

Authorities said Pettus strangled Byrd until she lost consciousness, then raped and stabbed her.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Gorman had asked Kravitz to sentence Pettus to life without parole. Pettus must spend at least 55 years in prison before being eligible for release. Some of Byrd's family members were disappointed with the sentence.

"He's going to do a lot of time, but he should have gotten life," said Byrd's son, Maurice, 59.

With his ankles and legs shackled, Pettus turned toward the crowded courtroom full of Byrd's family members as well as his own family and apologized for Byrd's death and for not cooperating fully with police. He says he had an ongoing sexual relationship with Byrd but denied having anything to do with her murder.

"Please don't give me life without parole for a murder that I didn't commit," Pettus said, turning toward Kravitz.

Wearing a "Free My Daddy" T-shirt, Pettus's 7-year-old son sat with Pettus's family.

Pettus has another case before Kravitz. He was charged with the 2007 rape of a cellmate in the D.C. Jail.

Seven of the 16 jurors and alternates who sat through the trial and spent eight days deliberating before reaching a verdict returned to the courtroom for the sentencing. They have kept in touch through an e-mail group list. Yesterday, they hugged one another and met with Byrd's family members.

"We just wanted closure," one juror said.

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