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Mentally retarded man valiantly faces his attacker in court

CLEARWATER — A sharply dressed prosecutor stands on a podium.

He tells the seven jurors that the man at the defense table tried to kill a mentally retarded man with a knife.

The victim, Charles "Skipper" Gibbs, 54, sits with an earnest expression on his face in the second pew of the courtroom. His arms are folded in his lap. His sister Carol, who looks after him, wraps her arm around his shoulder.

People have called Gibbs "Skipper" ever since a favorite uncle gave him the name as a child. He cannot read or write or tell time or cook for himself.

"Skipper is a pretty good victim," the prosecutor tells the jury. "He has a simple routine. He walks around the park and collects cans. He appears to be — and is — mentally slow. He is a perfect victim for someone to attack."

Carol begins to cry. A friend hands her a travel pack of Puffs. Skipper sees that she's crying, but his expression doesn't change.

• • •

Skipper, whose gray hair is combed over his bald spot, marches to the witness stand. A bailiff shows him his seat. "Thank you," Skipper says.

In March, Skipper was finishing his routine jog around Northwest Park, at 22nd Avenue N and 58th Street in St. Petersburg, when a teenager on a bicycle rode up and stabbed him 11 times.

Skipper ran home and collapsed in a puddle of blood.

He spent several days in a hospital and needed months of physical therapy.

Two days after the attack, police arrested Sascha Weber, now 20, after three of his friends told a detective that Weber bragged to them about the stabbing.

A motive for the attack never has been established.

Last week, Weber went on trial, charged with attempted first-degree murder.

The prosecution worked for hours with Skipper, preparing him to testify.

Prosecutor Loren Pincus showed him the courtroom and explained how the trial would work. He learned what questions Skipper could answer and which he couldn't. He encouraged Skipper to slow down when he speaks so the jury could understand him.

With Skipper on the stand, Pincus sticks to mostly yes or no questions. Still, the court reporter has to ask Skipper to repeat himself several times.

Carol usually acts as Skip's interpreter. But because she also was called as a witness, she can't even be in the courtroom during her brother's testimony. They later were allowed to sit in the courtroom together during closing arguments.

"Did he tell you he was going to kill you?" Pincus asks Skipper, who is hunched forward on the witness stand, his eyes focused on the lawyer.

"Yes."

"Did you think he was going to kill you?"

"Yes," Skipper answers after thinking for a moment.

"Do you know why he attacked you?

"Nope."

A blond woman in the jury wipes away tears.

• • •

Skipper wasn't afraid to take the stand, the first time in his life he spoke in front of an audience.

"I got over the fear real quick," Skipper says after his testimony.

"He's always been really brave," his sister says.

"I guess I'm like Braveheart," he replies.

It didn't bother him to see the enlarged photographs of his stab wounds. He wasn't embarrassed to lift up his shirt and show the jury his scars.

When he pointed at Weber as the man who stabbed him, he didn't feel scared or angry. He just wanted Weber to go to prison for as long as possible.

"He's dangerous," Skipper says with emphasis.

• • •

Over the course of a two-day trial, the prosecution called to the stand the three friends who said they heard Weber brag about the attack. They didn't believe Weber at first, but he offered one of them proof: the bloody knife.

The prosecutors also presented what they thought was slam-dunk evidence: Skipper's blood on Weber's white Nike sneakers.

But in a dramatic twist, Weber's defense lawyer, James A. Martin, pointed out that the St. Petersburg Police Department sent Skipper's shoes to the lab instead of Weber's. Lab results showed that Skipper's blood was on his own shoes — not Weber's.

The judge looked at the prosecutors.

"Did Mr. Martin drop a bomb on you?" the judge asked.

The prosecutors looked embarrassed. "Kind of," one of them said.

A conviction now seemed less certain.

• • •

"I'm sure they'll make a good decision," Carol whispers to Skip, squeezing his shoulder, as the jury retreats to the deliberation room.

To pass the time, Skipper looks at pictures in magazines like Cat Fancy that his sister brought for him.

After about an hour, they learn the jury has reached a verdict.

"Skipper," Carol says to get his attention, showing him she has her fingers crossed on both hands.

He crosses his fingers on only his right hand. His left hand was badly sliced in the attack and the tendon in his middle finger doesn't work.

They sit in the second row, her arm once again over his shoulder. He shows her that his fingers are still crossed.

The jury files in. The clerk reads the verdict.

The jury has found Weber guilty of attempted murder in the second degree, a lesser crime than the original charge. He still will face substantial prison time when he is sentenced in December.

In the elevator, Skipper and Carol talk about the verdict. Skip feels disappointed. He wanted Weber to be found guilty of the more serious charge.

"Can't win 'em all," Skipper says.

They leave the courthouse together.

To this day, Carol has nightmares about the attack. Skipper does not.

He still goes to the park by himself. He still follows his routine.

He just looks over his shoulder whenever he sees someone on a bicycle.

Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

Mentally retarded man valiantly faces his attacker in court 11/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 13, 2008 1:24am]
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