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Against all advice, Pasco man represents himself in robbery trial

NEW PORT RICHEY — Morgan Armstrong had just three questions of the people in the jury pool.

Did any of them believe that just because someone wears a law enforcement badge, that he or she is automatically telling the truth? No, they answered in unison.

Do they realize that people are found innocent of crimes every day? Yes, they said.

Has any of them worked with someone who does whatever it takes to get a job done, even if it's not right? Yep, the potential jurors said.

Then Armstrong leaned over and whispered with the lawyer appointed to help him represent himself against an armed robbery charge. He stood back up and apologized.

"I'm sorry, one more question," said Armstrong, 32, who wore a white button-up shirt that was a couple of sizes too big, a tie and black pants.

"If you had to depend on that person or trust that person, would you?" he asked.

No, said the group.

With that, Armstrong was off and running in his own legal representation, a step criminal defendants occasionally take and which judges and lawyers try hard to talk them out of.

In Armstrong's situation, it's especially puzzling. He had a lawyer who represented him in a trial this year on charges of robbing a Citgo gas station in Hudson. The store clerk recognized the masked robber as Armstrong, and there was a surveillance video of the robbery, records show.

The jury found Armstrong not guilty.

Nonetheless, Armstrong fired his lawyer, insisting he was colluding with prosecutors.

"I'd rather have a 3-year-old with a Lite Brite be my lawyer," Armstrong said a couple of weeks ago in court.

So, after much counseling to the contrary by Circuit Judge Michael Andrews, Armstrong decided to represent himself.

He cites cases and enters motions. He has read a great deal about the law while in jail and uses a lot of appropriate terminology. He's also a novice who thinks he has the right legal tricks up his sleeve, only to run into walls.

And he is convinced his constitutional rights are being trampled.

Once, during jury selection Tuesday, Andrews asked if he had any objections.

"Yeah, but it doesn't matter," Armstrong responded.

In this case, he's accused of a substantially similar crime to the Citgo robbery — donning a mask and cap, wielding a knife, walking into a convenience store and demanding money.

During opening arguments, Assistant State Attorney Ryan McGee told jurors that the clerk again recognized Armstrong as a regular customer.

"The clerk had seen those eyes over a hundred times. She had heard his voice over a hundred times," McGee said. "She recognized that voice, she recognized those eyes."

A witness will testify that he saw Armstrong on a bike minutes before the robbery and afterward, saw the robber pedaling away. A sheriff's detective will testify that under questioning, Armstrong talked about how much prison time he was willing to serve.

"Morgan Armstrong is guilty of armed robbery," McGee said.

Then it was Armstrong's turn. He apologized to the jury for his lack of public speaking skills.

He said another witness will say that Armstrong was riding a different color bike than the one the robber rode. He hinted that the case detective was not telling the truth.

He told the jury that the state has the burden of proof, but "to me it doesn't seem that way. It seems I have the burden."

McGee objected to that statement, and Andrews sustained it.

Armstrong let out a loud sigh, then regrouped.

"The evidence will show I did not commit this crime. Thank you," he said, and sat down.

The trial continues today.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or on Twitter at @mollymoorhead.

Against all advice, Pasco man represents himself in robbery trial 09/06/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 6, 2011 8:49pm]
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