Convicted killer accused of sexually assaulting cellmate

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

A District man who was convicted of the 2004 rape and killing of his 77-year-old neighbor is in court again this week, fighting charges that he sexually assaulted his cellmate four years ago.

Robert Pettus, 24, is in the same courtroom where a jury convicted him in 2008 of raping and killing Martha E. Byrd in her Southeast Washington apartment. At the time, Judge Michael Rankin, who is also overseeing Pettus's new trial, sentenced him to 60 years in prison.

Pettus maintained that he did not rape or kill Byrd. He said it was consensual sex.

This time, he says that he did not rape his cellmate in the D.C. jail and that the 48-year-old man, who had a history of mental illness, made the accusation to get out of the cell they shared because Pettus would not concede the bottom bunk.

The man died in 2007 of unrelated kidney and lung failure. The Washington Post does not identify victims in sexual assault cases.

Pettus says he is representing himself because he does not trust the lawyers appointed to handle to his case.

Months before the trial, Pettus allegedly threatened Rankin during a conversation with Jonathan Zucker, his court-appointed adviser at the time. Zucker told the judge and resigned as Pettus's adviser, concerned that charges might be filed and he would be called as a witness.

Pettus apologized to the judge and said his comments were misinterpreted. The court then appointed Stuart Johnson as Pettus's adviser.

Two federal marshals accompany Pettus, and he wears leg shackles at the defense table. A red drape on the table conceals the chains. At one time, Pettus wore a belt that could send an immobilizing jolt through his body if a marshal activated a remote signal.

At times, Pettus comes across as a sincere, well-spoken man who has spent months researching cases and legal theory. During tense questioning between Pettus and the cellmate's mother, he told the woman from Middleburg, Fla., that he was "sorry for your loss."

The mother hesitated and often looked at the jury instead of Pettus when answering his questions.

Pettus was able to get the woman to acknowledge her son's mental problems, a detail that prosecutors wanted kept out of the proceedings.

In his opening statement, Pettus told the jury that an initial physical examination of his cellmate did not find Pettus's DNA. Pettus said it was not until a second examination that Pettus's DNA turned up. Pettus said the detectives who worked on his homicide case took a DNA sample from him at the time, and that later, while assisting in the assault case, they provided his DNA to authorities. "This is not the truth, and I will prove it to you," Pettus said. "I've seen you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent."

But later, Pettus began venturing into lengthy conspiracy theories involving oppression of Native Americans and Dred Scott. The judge lectured him on legal procedure.

During his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rubenstein described how Pettus grabbed his cellmate by the neck, choked him and threw him onto the bottom bunk.

He also described internal injuries the cellmate suffered during the assault. Rubenstein said that when a correctional officer opened the cell door, the man ran to the officer and said Pettus "raped me."

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