LARGO — Wandering through courtrooms in Pinellas County's Criminal Justice Center is like surfing the channels of justice. You can find cases of murder or shoplifting. A woman is ordered to pay a traffic ticket, a man is sentenced to death.
Even with all this variety, it's still really hard to find a felony trial in this building on 49th Street that doesn't change a single thing in anyone's life.
Yet in the Division D courtroom this week, a convicted murderer represented himself on a drug charge that in all likelihood will not affect one day of his prison sentence.
"Honestly, this is a farce," said Jorge Angulo, court-appointed standby counsel for the defendant, William Chad Routenberg, 37.
Angulo seemed pained to watch the untrained Routenberg attempt to defend himself against a cocaine charge: "He doesn't know what he's doing."
Prosecutors say the trial — which likely won't result in a longer prison sentence for a man already facing a life sentence — was a matter of principle.
Earlier this year, Routenberg was convicted of second-degree murder for stabbing his girlfriend in the neck. Shanessa Lynn Chappie was found buried in the couple's back yard.
He will be sentenced for the murder in June and could get life in prison.
When Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Keith Meyer sentences Routenberg, he may reflect on a previous case that led a different judge to say "you scare me to death" and prompted a prosecutor to call him "one of the scariest individuals we have ever had in this county."
That was after Routenberg, at age 14, was arrested for raping an 11-year-old in a St. Petersburg middle school stairwell. He was sent to the now-closed Dozier School for Boys, where he ultimately pleaded no contest to lewd and lascivious behavior after a boy there accused him of trying to coerce him into sex.
Now, decades later, Routenberg was in court again starting Tuesday, serving as his own attorney. Even though Routenberg faced up to 15 years in prison for the cocaine charge, there's a strong chance it would simply be folded into whatever sentence he gets for the murder.
So why go forward?
"Prosecutors have certain principles," Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said, and gave this background:
The State Attorney's Office offered to give Routenberg a concurrent sentence — meaning he would serve his drug and murder sentences simultaneously if he pleaded guilty. He refused.
Prosecutors also offered "time served" — meaning Routenberg's sentence on the drug charge would be over as soon as he pleaded guilty. He refused that, too, Bartlett said.
This presented another option: Prosecutors could simply drop the charge. No way, Bartlett said, not "in light of all the circumstances and all his history."
Bartlett said it was well worth it to have assistant state attorneys Ellen Germuska and Frank Piazza prosecute the case. And on Thursday afternoon, the jury had a verdict: guilty of cocaine possession with intent to sell.
"We just didn't feel that it was appropriate to just walk away from it," Bartlett said.