Shortly after a lunch break in a recent drug trial, as D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert Richter began reading jurors their instructions, the defendant leaned over and began punching his court-appointed attorney in the face.
U.S. marshals quickly pulled Jamal H. Baptist off his attorney and escorted him to a cellblock, according to several people who were in the room or otherwise familiar with the incident. Attorney Ian Williams was taken to the courthouse nurses’ station, his mouth covered in blood.
The unusual Jan. 3 incident was the first physical attack by a defendant on an attorney in the courthouse that longtime workers, including court officials, prosecutors and defense attorneys, could recall. Nobody else was hurt, but in an unlikely coincidence, the court reporter in Richter’s courtroom was herself the victim of an unprompted on-the-job attack almost a year ago.
Court officials declined to discuss the incident, saying the case was pending. On Thursday, Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield sent an e-mail to courtroom personnel reiterating the importance of the presence of U.S. marshals in courtrooms.
The incident shocked many court employees and concerned seasoned defense attorneys.
“This rarely happens. We’ve had clients angry and threaten us, but never anything physical,” said Betty Ballester, head of the D.C. Superior Court’s Trial Lawyers Association.
Ballester called the attack “isolated” and said she worried that it would distort the image of the relationships between defense attorneys and their clients.
“This sends the wrong message that our clients are dangerous, horrible people who can’t be trusted in a courtroom,” she said. “We don’t worry about them in court.”
Williams returned to work a day after the attack. Another attorney was appointed to Baptist’s case.
In a brief interview, Williams declined to discuss the attack in detail. He acknowledged that one of Baptist’s punches fractured a tooth and that he might have suffered other damage to his mouth.
“I am very grateful to the marshals and the nurses in the courthouse,” said Williams, 49. “I received magnificent care from the nurses’ office.”
Officials familiar with the incident said Baptist, 37, became enraged as he continually interrupted the judge’s attempts to read the jury instructions. At one point, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing, Williams turned to Baptist and told him to be quiet. He was then attacked.
Court officials ordered a mental evaluation for Baptist, who is from Southeast Washington, four days later to determine whether he was competent to stand trial. A report from an official at St. Elizabeths Hospital, the District-run mental-health facility, said that after a 10-minute examination in his cell, Baptist said he no longer wanted to be examined without first speaking to an attorney.
It was the second psychiatric screening for Baptist, according to court records. In July, days after Baptist was arrested on the drug charges, another health official screened him after he told court officials that he was “the Messiah.”
That examiner said Baptist explained that his occupation was “the Messiah” and that he was sharing his message and beliefs regarding his Muslim faith with other inmates. That examiner found Baptist competent.
After the latest screening, the St. Elizabeths doctor wrote that during a brief conversation, Baptist admitted to having used PCP, marijuana and crack cocaine. The doctor said he needed further time to evaluate Baptist, and another hearing was scheduled for Tuesday.
The attack on Williams came almost a year after a court reporter was beaten by an irate man during a civil hearing. That man, Aaron Riddick, 25, pleaded guilty to assault on the reporter, Jurtiana Jeon, and a judge sentenced him to 360 days in jail. The judge suspended all but 120 days and ordered Riddick to undergo mental-health treatment.
Jeon, who returned to work weeks after Riddick’s attack, was sitting just feet from the incident in Richter’s courtroom. She did not return calls seeking comment.
The attack on Jeon took place in a building a few blocks from the main courthouse, where criminal cases are heard. In that satellite facility, known as Building A, armed federal marshals are generally stationed in courtrooms only when requested.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the incident involving Williams because the case against Baptist is pending.