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Rapist to represent himself at murder trial

LARGO — Like a demure preacher, the bald man with a thin goatee clutched both sides of the lectern and murmured into the microphone.

"If you were in the process," he said, then paused.

In front of him, a group of nearly 60 potential jurors were packed into the courtroom's first six rows. They sat, silently, waiting.

"I do apologize," he continued, just above a whisper. "If somebody was in the process of committing a crime at your home, do you believe you have the right to defend yourself?"

He asked everyone in the first row. Yes, they responded. He asked the second. Yes. He started to ask the third, when a man in the second spoke up.

"It depends what you mean by defend yourself," he said. "I don't believe it's right to take someone's life."

The man at the lectern sounded like a lawyer, sort of, but he didn't look like one.

He wore no tie and no suit. His checkered shirt was baggy. His dark slacks were loose. He had no belt. His black shoes were worn.

Still, it was hard to tell that the man at the lectern was a rapist, alleged killer and someone long ago described as "one of the scariest individuals we have ever had in this county."

William Chad Routenberg is on trial in the 2011 murder of his girlfriend, 24-year-old Shanessa Lynn Chappie. He announced last week that, after going through three attorneys, he wanted to represent himself.

On Tuesday, he helped select the six-person jury that will decide whether he's guilty and should spend the rest of his life in prison.

This was not his first courtroom experience.

In 1990, at the age of 14, Routenberg raped an 11-year-old girl at his St. Petersburg middle school. A judge sent him to the Dozier School for Boys.

There, Routenberg sexually assaulted a boy in a shower. Before sentencing Routenberg to life in prison in 1995, a judge told him: "You scare me to death."

An appeals court tossed out his life sentence. He was released by 2002, though he remained on probation. He had several run-ins with the law but avoided prison time.

Then, in the summer of 2011, authorities say he stabbed his girlfriend in the neck and buried her body in the back yard of the home they shared near High Point. Investigators didn't find her for more than a month.

Routenberg, now 37, admitted to detectives that he killed Chappie during an argument, authorities say. This week, he's expected to tell jurors he stabbed her in self-defense.

People seldom represent themselves, but Routenberg seemed insistent.

Not every potential juror was supportive.

One said it was a really bad idea. Two called it foolish.

"It's like the old saying," one of them said, "somebody who represents himself has got a fool for an attorney."

Another juror seemed offended.

"It will sway me," he said. "Just because I think it's not a wise decision."

The man, who noted that he had read many crime novels, said that when people represent themselves, it's as if they're wearing a T-shirt that says … the man paused.

"Can I say it?" he asked, apparently referring to the word "guilty."

"No," Judge Keith Meyer yelled before calling him to the bench.

One woman told the judge she was also biased, but for a different reason.

She knew Routenberg. They had met two years ago at Baby Dolls in Clearwater, where she worked as a stripper. After the killing, she explained, his arrest reports had been posted on the club's dressing room walls.

Neither she, nor any of his critics, made the jury.

Though Routenberg seldom appeared to take notes during the day's questioning, he seemed to know precisely who he didn't want to determine his fate.

In cases like this one, the defense can strike 10 jurors without an excuse. Routenberg used all 10.

Opening statements are scheduled for this morning. Routenberg has been preparing for six days. One of the two attorneys prosecuting his case, Doug Ellis, has been practicing for 28 years and has been preparing for months.

Rapist to represent himself at murder trial 02/19/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 11:04pm]
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