Northern Virginians got their first close-up view of the bizarre case of a former Norfolk judge charged with pistol-whipping the state legislator who was once his chief patron, as the former judge's trial got underway yesterday in Alexandria.
Both the accused, Luther C. Edmonds, and the victim, Del. William P. Robinson Jr., are from Hampton Roads. The case was moved after the first proceeding ended in a widely publicized hung jury.
Once good friends, Edmonds and Robinson, both 57, publicly fell out in 1996 after Edmonds resigned his circuit court judgeship while under investigation by a state judicial commission. Edmonds said he was protesting racist behavior by the other judges, but Robinson told the news media that the judge was being ousted for deciding cases that involved Edmonds's alleged girlfriend.
A year later, on Dec. 29, 1997, Robinson told the Circuit Court jury yesterday, a masked man lay in wait for him outside his law office, pointed a gun at him and then beat him about the head and face. "I was able to get both of my hands around the [assailant's] wrist and part of the gun . . . [and held on] as if my life depended on it," Robinson said.
He said a co-worker interrupted the attack, and the assailant fled.
Police later linked Edmonds to the crime through circumstantial evidence, special prosecutor Paul B. Ebert told the jury. Robinson's blood was found on Edmonds's gun, and a piece of plastic found at the scene matched a piece missing from the Volvo Edmonds was driving that day, Ebert said.
But defense attorney Andrew M. Sacks suggested that the real culprit was one of the three unidentified men who visited Robinson's office in a Volvo earlier in the day. Robinson initially described his attacker as four inches shorter than Edmonds and said he did not notice any glasses.
Sacks told the jury that Edmonds cannot see without his glasses, does not wear contacts and was driving to see his girlfriend at the time of the attack. He also laid the groundwork for arguing that his client had been framed, noting that the gun and an unsealed vial of Robinson's blood were both lying around the Norfolk police department before being sent to the state crime lab.
Although Edmonds ran unsuccessfully against Robinson in two elections, he has never threatened the delegate, Sacks said. "Occasion after occasion, when he could have expressed anger, he didn't," the lawyer said.
The first trial, which lasted 13 days, was marked by battles between the lawyers and occasional outbursts from Paul M. Peatross, the Albemarle County judge who took over the case after all Norfolk judges recused themselves.
The new proceeding is proving to be equally confrontational, with both sides repeatedly leaping to their feet to object to questions they dislike.
Peatross so far has largely sided with Ebert, and by lunchtime yesterday he had already threatened Sacks with being in contempt of court for ignoring his rulings.
"We have a disagreement here on what is admissible evidence in this case. . . . But I have to be the judge, and you have to be the lawyer," Peatross said. "You keep asking the same question with a word or two changed."
For his part, Sacks has asked for a mistrial. "The court has criticized me twice in front of the jury. That gives the impression that you have disdain for me and my client," he said. Peatross denied the request.
Staff writer Graeme Zielinski contributed to this report.