It says "attorney at law" on Michelle Roberts' business card, but her specialty is storytelling and she's weaving a spellbinder this morning in May. Her audience is a rapt jury in D.C. Superior Court and the hero of this tale is her client, a man who allegedly gunned down a former girlfriend in his living room.
His name is Charles Irby and in Roberts's rendering he is a soft-spoken 25-year-old computer whiz who for years was stalked by a violent and jealous woman. Some days she cooed pornographically into Irby's answering machine; on others, she vandalized his car and vowed to have him killed.
"And it didn't stop there," Roberts says, her voice booming. "Tonya Anderson somehow got the phone number of Mr. Irby's mother and again used language that would shame a pirate. This goes on for years."
It's a compelling yarn, told with conviction and flawless timing, and it ends with Anderson barging into Irby's house and killing herself after the two struggle over a gun. But as Roberts narrates, a question hovers: Is this fact or fable?
Twenty years of jail time hang in the balance, typical stakes in the dozens of homicide trials that unfold in Washington every year. For a small group of lawyers, including Roberts, the hundreds of shootings each year in the District are not just the stuff of tragedy -- they are a business opportunity in one of the most competitive legal niches in the city.
There are easier ways to earn a living with a law degree. When they prevail, these lawyers are accused of helping criminals get away with murder. But triumphs are rare because prosecutors bring only their strongest cases and aren't often interested in cutting deals. Last year there were 24 acquittals and nine hung juries in the 86 homicide trials that reached a jury in Washington, a conviction rate of 62 percent, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
"If you win three times in a year, people hear about you," Roberts said.
Buzz is the lifeblood of all lawyers, and for the homicide bar it ricochets on the streets and in prisons rather than executives' suites. Most demand their fees up front -- about $10,000 to $20,000 per case, more if the client can afford it and a lengthy trial is unavoidable. Lawyers don't ask where the money came from and when clients demand refunds, they usually get them, no questions asked.
Like any practice area, a coterie of sought-after stars dominates this field, most of them former public defenders with a gift for improvisation and an actor's dramatic range. There's Bernard Grimm, who investigates with the tenacity of Columbo in the weeks before a trial, hunting down witnesses and details that could provide alibis for his clients.
Mark Rochon, Roberts' longtime partner, is another headliner. So is Kenneth Robinson, who is storied for winning an acquittal for a man with "H-O-M-I-C-I-D-E" tattooed on his knuckles and who makes a point of bursting into tears during his emotionally charged closing arguments.
"In a murder case, there's always some way to get to the emotions of a jury, usually something about the person's background," said Robinson, 55, who keeps a plastic barrel marked "Unused Alibis" on his cluttered desk. "And because there's so much on the line, I think the juries bend over backwards to find reasonable doubt."
A rarity in a male-dominated business, the 42-year-old Roberts is on everyone's short list of the best homicide lawyers in town, a job she considers both a calling and a crusade. Growing up in a South Bronx housing project, she spent hours watching and listening at a nearby courthouse, tagging along with her mother, a woman who considered the real-life drama of the judicial system the finest free theater around. The pair often wandered through the courthouse's chaotic hallways as defense attorneys and prosecutors haggled over the fate of defendants.
It soon dawned on Roberts that there was a connection between the courthouse spectacle and the frequent disappearance of young men who hung out with her older brothers. The fate of those friends, she realized, was being negotiated in those hallways, often by attorneys who fought halfheartedly or spoke to clients in baffling legalisms.
"Even as a kid, I thought that most of what I was seeing was just bad lawyering," Roberts said. "The defendants seemed like foreigners who had no sense of the decisions being made about them, except these foreigners lived just three or four blocks away."
The Inevitable Question
Roberts still thinks that African Americans are unfairly battered by the judicial system. Which is why she is irked by the inevitable question: How can you represent people accused of such horrible crimes?
Every lawyer has a ready answer. Typically, it starts with a meditation on the presumption of innocence, a bedrock constitutional principle, and goes on from there.
"That question is so damn boring," Roberts said. "What I find troubling is the notion that the worst human beings among us are the ones charged with blue-collar crimes, as though there's nothing to be said about, say, Exxon."
For others, the thrill of combat has its own addicting rewards.
"Beating the government," said Grimm, "there is no better drug."
Robinson, the unofficial dean of this group, can't kick the habit, though he has tried. In 1988, a hit man dispatched by a disgruntled client left this gregarious, burly Southerner shot and bleeding badly in his office late one night. In the hospital, Robinson's wife begged him to give up homicide cases. Figuring that he was a goner anyway, Robinson agreed.
Now, very much alive, he spends the bulk of his time on white-collar plaintiffs, but he can't help breaking his vow and taking a murder every couple of years.
"It's like a prizefighter staying in shape," said Robinson, smiling. "These cases keep you on your toes."
Just the Facts
On these facts, both sides agree: Charles Irby met Tonya Anderson in the parking lot of Carter Barron in the fall of 1995. The pair began dating and had a child named Tyler in April of the next year. By then Irby had broken off the relationship and started dating another woman.
Anderson refused to let go. She called Irby's Northeast home, sometimes 20 times in a day. She scrawled obscene messages in lipstick on his front door. On several occasions, she scratched Irby's face and neck. She shredded the roof of his girlfriend's convertible, and was later convicted of destruction of property.
Tensions culminated on Sept. 5, the day Anderson was scheduled to have an abortion, having claimed that she again was pregnant by Irby. She skipped that appointment and instead showed up fuming at Irby's home. Irby opened the door holding a gun and told her to leave. She did but soon returned.
Here, the two accounts diverge. The defense claims that Anderson then burst through the front door, grabbed the gun from the dining room table, and threatened to kill Irby and herself. The two wrestled for the weapon, wound up on the floor and Anderson shot herself point-blank on top of her head. Irby then called the police, who found Anderson face down and dead in the living room, a 10-pound barbell clutched in her right hand.
A Contest About Character
As the case unfolds, it becomes clear that a homicide trial is only superficially about facts and fingerprints. It is actually a contest between rival conceptions of the same character, with each lawyer struggling to fit the protagonist into a plot line that is plausible and accounts for every detail.
"A good opening and closing argument," Roberts said in an interview in her Capitol Hill office, "has a once-upon-a-time quality to it."
Roberts spends much of her court time painting Irby as the victim of a profane and deranged stalker in the tradition of "Fatal Attraction." She notes that Irby is three inches shorter and nearly 100 pounds lighter than the 5-foot-10, 233-pound woman he is accused of killing. And she plays a 911 recording of a call Irby made to the police during one of Anderson's visits. A doorbell ding-dongs maniacally in the background.
"You should never have broken up with her," a dispatcher is heard quipping on the tape.
"I should never have met her," Irby replies.
A Tough Sell
Pitching her client as frightened prey proves a tough sell. Prosecutor Dwight Jackson, a skilled narrator in his own right, tars the defendant as a playboy and practiced deceiver who continued having sex with Anderson during the years she allegedly stalked him, the last tryst occurring only a few weeks before her death.
Then there is a crucial bit of physical evidence. The bullet that killed Anderson entered the top of her head on the right side and exited her left cheek. If there was a barbell in Anderson's right hand, how could the wound be self-inflicted? Jackson's answer: Irby fired the weapon while gripping Anderson in a headlock.
Roberts claims her client is incapable of such brutality, an impression reinforced by Irby, who appears to be on the verge of physical collapse during the proceedings and is excused to vomit during graphic testimony by a medical examiner. Roberts is firmly convinced her client is innocent and never doubts that he must take the stand to win this case.
"There's a dead woman in his living room," Roberts says during a break, "and he needs to explain to the jury how that happened."
Appearing stricken and panting for breath between words, Irby retraces each step of his relationship with Anderson, a story that reaches a crescendo with a re-enactment of Anderson's last minute of life. Irby rolls around on the floor in front of the jury, mock-wrestling with Roberts' co-counsel, narrating the action as he wheezes for air and sobs.
In court, Roberts radiates commitment. She never appears to be shading the truth, let alone fibbing. Her delivery is smooth without ever seeming like a sales pitch, her cross-examinations are pointed without ever seeming cruel. Each day of the trial, she smokes a cigarette rather than eating lunch, worried that a meal will make her drowsy. She gets only a few hours of sleep at night.
By closing arguments, the courtroom is packed with spectators. Jackson adds flourishes to his sketch of the accused as a lying Lothario. "If I sat here a few days ago and said, `Dude, over there is a mac daddy, an American gigolo, you wouldn't have believed me," he says. Now, he implies, they will.
Roberts again turns the events into a dramatic monologue, assuming the voice of every character and casting Anderson as a spurned and unhinged lover. At several points, Roberts stares straight at the jury and shouts a string of obscenities, mimicking Anderson and attempting to re-create the abuse Irby allegedly endured for years. She concludes by urging the jury to "end this nightmare and return the only verdict consistent with the evidence."
When the jury begins to deliberate, Roberts refuses to speculate about the outcome. "I never look at the jury," she says. "Sometimes a guy looks like he's smiling at me, and actually he has gas. Sometimes they seem like they're scowling and actually they're with you."
Three days later, Roberts can't sleep, gripped suddenly with a premonition that her client will be found guilty. That afternoon, on May 27, the jury announces that it has found Irby guilty of second-degree murder. Irby crumples and begins to weep. He is scheduled for sentencing on Wednesday and could spend 10 years to 30 years behind bars.
When she loses, Roberts is beset by an agonizing sense of personal failure. She relives the trial, scouring for errors she might have made, opportunities she might have missed, objections she should have raised. The day after the verdict, she performs what she calls a ritual act of penance: visiting her imprisoned client in jail. Irby is shattered and the pair cry and hug as Roberts pleads for forgiveness.
Losing is an occupational hazard in the homicide defense bar, a setback that few in this city of 35,000 laywers ever experience. Most Washington lawyers are paid handsomely and by the hour to keep executives and corporations as far as possible from a courtroom.
But in the murder defense game, lawyers can either decline a case altogether or take it and fight in court. Pleading guilty isn't a viable option. "I spent most of my time begging him to realize that he could deal with this," Roberts says, recalling her last jail house meeting with Irby. "And just saying, `I`m sorry, I'm sorry' over and over again."
CAPTION: For Michelle Roberts, as for other defense attorneys in D.C. homicide cases, victory is sweet -- and relatively rare.