Court upholds conviction of man who went through five lawyers before trial

By: - November 8, 2021 11:51 am

Iowa law books. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Iowa Attorney General)

The Iowa Court of Appeals has upheld the willful injury conviction of a Polk County man who was sentenced to 35 years in prison after rejecting five attorneys and choosing to represent himself at trial.

In March 2017, James Deyo Robinson was arrested and charged with burglary in the first degree, willful injury causing serious injury, first-degree harassment and false imprisonment.

Over the next two years, he was represented at pretrial proceedings by attorneys Thomas Graves, Gerald Feuerhelm, Jesse Macro Jr., Gary Dickey and Christine Branstad. In each instance, there was breakdown in communication between Robinson and his lawyer. At one court hearing, Robinson accused his lawyers of working with prosecutors in the case as part of “the good ol’ white buddy network.”

In the year leading up to his trial, licensed psychologist Dr. Michael Huston evaluated Robinson and on April 16, 2018, found Robinson “was fully oriented” and had “sufficient mental abilities to be considered competent to stand trial at this time.” The next day, however, Huston filed a letter with the court and changed his opinion based on information gleaned from one of Robinson’s attorneys, telling the judge that Robinson “can be considered not competent to stand trial.” In October 2018, Huston offered a new opinion, telling the court Robinson was competent to stand trial – an opinion that another doctor also shared.

In April 2019, Robinson stood trial, acting as his own attorney with assistance from standby counsel. While testifying, he admitted striking, stabbing, choking, and stomping on his girlfriend during a fight in March 2017. He relied on a defense of diminished capacity, and testified about an alleged brain injury he said he had suffered during shoulder surgery. He did not offer into evidence any documentation to support his claim of a brain injury.

The jury convicted Robinson on all counts, as charged, and he was sentenced to prison for a term of no more than 35 years. Robinson appealed the conviction, arguing he wasn’t competent either to stand trial or represent himself, and that the court abused its discretion in failing to strike a juror who had voiced concerns about his own ability to be impartial.

Prior to the trial, a county prosecutor had asked the juror, “Do you have any concerns about your ability to be fair and impartial in this case?” The juror replied, “Absolutely,” to which the prosecutor responded, “You do have concerns about that?” “Yeah,” the juror replied. On further questioning, the juror said he would try to keep an open mind and said he liked to consider himself “pretty reasonable.”

The Court of Appeals rejected Robinson’s appeal, noting that he was examined and judged to be competent before trial. With regard to the juror, the court pointed out that Robinson did not take action himself to strike the man from the pool of potential jurors.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.