Inmate defended himself against sexual assault charges -- and won

Robert Pettus
Robert Pettus (Courtesy Of U.s. Attorney's Office - Courtesy Of U.s. Attorney's Office)
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By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sure it was risky. But Robert Pettus, a convicted rapist and murderer, told a D.C. Superior Court judge that he wanted to defend himself against charges that he sexually assaulted his mentally ill cellmate in the D.C. jail four years ago. The judge agreed to let him proceed.

Pettus, 24, who was found guilty in 2008 of raping and stabbing to death his 77-year-old Southeast Washington neighbor Martha E. Byrd, argued that the latest rape charges were false. The victim made up the allegations because Pettus refused to give up the bottom bunk, Pettus said. Pettus also told the jury that the jail's corrections officers supported the charges and corroborated the bunkmate's allegations because they were disgusted with the original murder charge.

On Tuesday, after about three hours of deliberations and a weeklong trial, the jury found Pettus not guilty.

Pettus is currently serving a 60-year sentence for the 2004 rape and murder and is expected to soon be moved from D.C. jail to a federal facility to begin serving his term. Pettus said he wanted to fight the allegations and was facing an additional 15 years to life sentence if convicted on the sexual assault charges.

There's an old saying that people representing themselves have a fool for a client and legal experts often advise defendants against representing themselves in court, especially those with no formal legal training. But Pettus said he wanted to represent himself because he said he did not trust the lawyers appointed by the court.

During the trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rubenstein questioned several jail corrections officers about the victim's allegations. Rubenstein also questioned physicians who examined the roommate.

But Pettus, who had written out the points he wanted to make and used his notes at trial, was able to convey to the jury through his questioning that he was never interrogated or examined after the alleged incident.

During his questioning, Pettus also got a corrections officer to acknowledge that the color photographs taken of the victim after the alleged attack and downloaded into the jail's command center had been accidentally destroyed by jail officials. The only photos that were available were black and white and of very poor quality.

The alleged victim, a 48-year-old man, died in 2007 of unrelated kidney and lung failure.

At times, Pettus came across as a sincere, well-spoken man who had spent months researching cases and legal theory. During tense questioning between Pettus and the cellmate's mother, Pettus got the Florida 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.

Pettus sometimes went off on tangents, speaking of conspiracy theories and comparing his situation with the plight of Native Americans and Dred Scott.

During the trial, two federal marshals shadowed Pettus, and he wore leg shackles at the defense table. Months before the trial, Pettus allegedly threatened Judge Michael L. Rankin during a conversation with his previous court-appointed advising attorney. Pettus apologized to the judge and said his comments were misinterpreted. Another lawyer, Stuart Johnson, was then appointed to advise Pettus.

During the trial, Johnson and Pettus often disagreed on Pettus's line of questioning. At one point, a visibly angry Pettus ordered Johnson to sit in the audience and away from the defense table they shared. Rankin rejected that request.

After the verdict, Johnson called the case one of the "most unusual" he had ever worked. "I have a new appreciation if a client of mine in the future insists in rejecting a plea offer and go to trial. I'm going to listen to them even more than I normally would," Johnson said.

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