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Jailhouse lawyer strikes out twice with Pasco juries

Defendant Morgan Armstrong looks back at his court-appointed standby counsel, Geoff Cox, as he represents himself on charges that he robbed a Hudson convenience store. He was found guilty of robbery with a deadly weapon.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Defendant Morgan Armstrong looks back at his court-appointed standby counsel, Geoff Cox, as he represents himself on charges that he robbed a Hudson convenience store. He was found guilty of robbery with a deadly weapon.

NEW PORT RICHEY — Morgan Armstrong put his legal skills to the test in front of another jury Tuesday and got the same result: a guilty verdict.

The 32-year-old felon chose to represent himself against charges of robbing a Hudson convenience store twice in October 2009. He made arguments, raised objections and questioned witnesses armed only with a perfunctory knowledge of the law and a firm conviction that the system was conspiring against him.

It did not work out in his favor either time.

And at the end of one of west Pasco's more bizarre legal proceedings, Armstrong went away to prison for 35 years.

"You were completely involved. You committed these crimes," Circuit Judge Michael Andrews told Armstrong, who had maintained his innocence.

Earlier this year, Armstrong went to trial in a third convenience store robbery. He was represented by a lawyer in that case and found not guilty. But Armstrong, who remained at the Land O'Lakes jail awaiting trial on the other two charges, insisted his attorney was not on his side. So he took on the State Attorney's Office himself.

Authorities said Armstrong put on a mask and wielded a knife, walked into Beverages Plus at State Road 52 and Little Road and demanded money from the clerk. Then, authorities said, he did the same thing a week later.

In the first trial, held earlier this month, Armstrong focused on witnesses' changing stories and questioned how the store clerk, Falguni Patel, could identify him behind a mask.

Patel, who said Armstrong held a knife to her throat, was so rattled by the trial she fainted on the witness stand. Family member and business partner Meena Patel removed her sneaker and held it to Falguni Patel's nose, attempting to revive her with the odor.

Falguni Patel went home that day but returned the next to finish testifying. The jury deliberated about 90 minutes before finding Armstrong guilty of robbery with a deadly weapon.

In Tuesday's case, Meena Patel recalled the robbery just before she closed the store Oct. 11, 2009. She said she recognized the man behind the mask.

"This guy was my customer every day," she said.

Falguni Patel had to testify again Tuesday to demonstrate the similarity between the crimes. Her voice quivered and she held her hand to her chest as she answered prosecutor Ryan McGee's questions. When Armstrong stood to cross-examine her, she winced at each question.

The jury was out about an hour. Andrews had originally set a sentencing hearing on all three cases for November, but Armstrong didn't want to delay. Again, he didn't want a lawyer.

McGee asked for a life sentence.

Armstrong called that "ridiculous."

"You have exactly no remorse here, do you?" Andrews asked him.

"For what?" Armstrong said. "I didn't do anything."

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

Jailhouse lawyer strikes out twice with Pasco juries 09/20/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 20, 2011 8:58pm]
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