RUSSELLVILLE – On the morning his murder trial was set to begin, Demetrius Roberson’s defense team was ordered off the case by the trial judge.
Logan Circuit Judge Tyler Gill announced in his courtroom to the jury pool that the trial was postponed after public defenders Michael Bufkin and Audrey Woosnam indicated during a conference in the judge’s chambers that they believed they could not effectively represent Roberson and would not be ready to proceed.
Roberson, 25, is charged with murder, attempted murder, first-degree robbery and nine counts of first-degree wanton endangerment in connection with the death of Lexus Bell, 21, who was shot Aug. 21, 2016, at her residence in Russellville’s Robinwood Apartments.
Four co-defendants accused along with Roberson have pleaded guilty to various criminal counts.
Roberson faces a maximum sentence of life without parole if convicted.
Gill said attorney Nathan Beard of the Department of Public Advocacy has been appointed to head Roberson’s defense and that he will consider contempt proceedings against Roberson’s former court-appointed lawyers.
“It’s become an ethical issue and a contempt issue,” Gill said in court. “Mr. Roberson does not trust his attorneys ... he has a right to have confidence in his attorneys and a right to have a fair trial.”
The judge threatened Bufkin with contempt when the attorney attempted to object as Gill summed up for potential jurors the events leading to the trial’s postponement.
Before excusing the jury pool, Gill said he believed that empaneling a jury Monday that returned a guilty verdict would amount to “wasted time” because he was certain a conviction would be overturned on appeal.
“I’m embarrassed for the legal system and we will take action to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” Gill said.
Bell’s stepfather, Kevin Morrow, was frustrated with the sudden development.
“This is sickening,” said Morrow, of Russellville, as he left the courtroom. “We’ve had to relive this for three years.”
Roberson’s defense team had sought recently to have the trial continued from its July 8 start, arguing at a hearing last week that they did not have adequate time to review CDs containing evidence that had been turned over to them by the Logan County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office.
Bufkin said last week that the CDs from the prosecution appeared to be blank, but when pressed by the judge on the matter, Bufkin said the CDs came into his possession at some point last year and Woosnam said they first noticed the CDs did not play within the past few weeks as they reviewed evidence.
Logan County Commonwealth’s Attorney Neil Kerr said Monday that the problem appeared to be that incompatible computer equipment used by the defense team prevented the data on the CDs from appearing.
Gill, who is retiring at the end of the month, had authorized $130,000 in state funds to be used by the Department of Public Advocacy for its investigation.
In addition to the problems with viewing evidence, Roberson’s defense team disclosed Monday that they had been unable to interview a few of their witnesses.
Gill questioned Bufkin about why that development was not mentioned in Bufkin’s motion last week to continue the trial.
“Why would you not be fully truthful with the court?” Gill asked.
Bufkin responded that he felt he had stated sufficient grounds to support a continuance.
Roberson’s defense team had also unsuccessfully sought a competency hearing and funds for a mental health expert who would evaluate Roberson.
In court filings, Roberson’s attorneys expressed concern about unspecified “intellectual disabilities.”
Bufkin said a lack of resources in the public defender’s office had not allowed him and Woosnam a reasonable amount of time to prepare for trial, though he was prepared to continue representing Roberson should the trial be continued.
Roberson at one point faced the death penalty after notice of intent to seek that punishment was filed by former Commonwealth’s Attorney Justin Crocker.
Bufkin and Woosnam, who are Capital Trial Attorneys with the Department of Public Advocacy, were appointed to represent Roberson after the case was certified for the death penalty.
Kerr, who defeated Crocker in last year’s election, removed the death penalty as an option.
Gill said Monday in court that certain allegations that supported making this a death penalty case turned out not to be true.
In court Monday, Kerr said his overriding concern was to avoid putting Bell’s family through an appeals process that could lead to a retrial.
“I want this to happen just one time for this family,” Kerr said.
In a statement released by his office Monday afternoon, Kerr said that, after that morning’s meeting in the judge’s chambers, there was a “150 percent chance” that any conviction would have been reversed on appeal if the trial had proceeded as scheduled.