WEST CHESTER – The teenage defendant in the murder trial involving the death of a Wendy’s restaurant worker on Wednesday declined to testify in her own defense, contrary to the advice her lead attorney said in court that he had offered her.
“Do you wish to testify or not?” President Judge James P. MacElree II asked Monique Robinson after giving her time to think about the matter and discuss it with her attorneys, Robert Donatoni and Stuart Crichton of West Chester. “No,” Robinson answered after taking a moment to think.
Robinson, 19, of Phoenixville, is charged with first, second, and third-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy and various other counts stemming from the September 2011 shooting death of worker Selvin Mamerto Lopez-Maurico, who was robbed of a backpack as he came home from work.
Should Robinson be found guilty of first- or second-degree murder by the Common Pleas Court jury hearing her case she faces a mandatory life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole. MacElree had cautioned her before the trial began on Monday that a life sentence in Pennsylvania means just that. “You die in jail,” he said.
Donatoni, a veteran criminal defense attorney, told MacElree in court after Robinson announced her decision that she had gone against his advice. “This is over my strong objection,” he told the judge. “Against my strong recommendation. This is a monumentally bad decision.”
The trial is set to resume Thursday with closing arguments by the two sides, legal charges by MacElree, and beginning of deliberations by the jury of nine men and three women.
The choice not to take the stand may have been influenced by Robinson’s family members, who have attended every day of the proceeding, sometimes more than one dozen strong. While the jury was out of the courtroom and Robinson was considering her options, one family member could be heard telling her she did not have to testify. “You don’t have to prove anything,” the woman said.
Criminal defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty and thus have no legal obligation to testify on the own behalf – or even put on any defense. The burden of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is placed on the prosecution.
But courtroom observers say that in many cases, when a defendant is essentially saying that they are not guilty of the crime – as Donatoni has sought to establish for Robinson – jurors emotionally react negatively about not getting to hear their side of the story, their protestations of innocence.
MacElree, in allowing Robinson – who was dressed in a gray pants suit and orange blouse – time to consider her decision, noted that even though she may have spoken to family members, those people were not attorneys and did not understand all the ramifications one might face by not testifying. Nevertheless, she said she did not want to take the stand.
Lopez-Maurico was shot once in the abdomen around 12:45 a.m. Sept. 14, 2011 in the 100 block of Prospect Street in Phoenixville. His murder was greeted with shock and horror by member of the Latino community in the borough, including I relatives from Guatemala with whom he lived. It was also quite a topic of conversation among other residents, since Phoenixville has comparatively few homicides.
Authorities arrested two men, Saleem Williams and Stephan Reidler, a week after the murder. They alleged that the men had robbed Lopez-Maurico of his backpack that contained some Wendy’s uniform clothing, personal items, and his paycheck. Later, they learned hat he had been given $300 cash that night by a relative to send home to his family. The money was not on his body when police found it.
Williams and Reidler have testified that Robinson had supplied the gun that was used in the shooting, and took part in the robbery by grabbing Lopez-Maurico’s backpack. Both men have pleaded guilty to third degree murder and robbery charges and have been sentenced to state prison.
Robinson was also charged following the murder, but was declared a fugitive after police went looking for her at Phoenixville High School and her home on the north side of the borough on Sept. 21, 2011, only to find she had disappeared.
Prosecution testimony on Wednesday centered on the efforts that police made to find and apprehend her in the days, weeks, and months following the shooting. Evidence of her flight to avoid apprehension can be used by Deputy District Attorney Peter Hobart, the lead prosecutor in the case, to show her consciousness of guilt.
Detective Sgt. Joseph Nemic of the Phoenixville Police Department said first surveillance videos that police had uncovered from area businesses along Bridge Street in the borough just before and after the shooting They first show a group of three people, two men and a woman, walking west along Bridge Street towards Prospect Street, and later running away from the scene back along Bridge Street.
He said that after viewing the videos and getting tips from the public, borough police and Chester County Detectives were able to identify Williams, Reidler, and Robinson as suspects. Nemic said he went to Phoenixville High School in the morning of Sept. 20, 2011 and confronted Robinson, who was a senior at the school at the time, with the news that she was a suspect. He later learned she went home sick.
The detective said he later spoke with one of Robinson’s sisters, and set up a meeting with her at 3 p.m. that day at the police station. Robinson, however, never arrived, he said. He checked her grandmother’s home that evening, and Robinson was not there.
“We scoured the town looking for her at that point,” Nemic told the jury, under questioning by Assistant District Attorney Sean Poll. Police looked for her at relatives’ homes, at locations she was known to frequent in town, and other places. “We were searching for a wanted person at that point.”
A warrant for her arrest was issued on Sept. 21, 2011, and efforts were made to alert other police jurisdictions of her fugitive status, Nemic said. There was a “wanted” poster circulated, and press releases given to Philadelphia area newspapers, radio stations, and television news broadcasts. A $2,500 reward for her whereabouts was offered by the Chester County District Attorney’s Office, he said.
Nemic and other officers traveled to Atlanta, Ga., Pottsville, Somerset County, and other locations tracking down tips they received, to no avail. “It was a continuous, exhaustive investigation,” he said.
It was not until Dec. 27, 2011, that police apprehended Robinson, after she turned herself in with Donatoni’s assistance.
The only witness hat Donatoni called on Robinson’s behalf was a friend from high school who said she was with Robinson much of the day before Lopez-Maurico’s murder.
Raiana Smith, a 2012 graduate of Phoenixville high, said that she had known Robinson for several years, and had seen her on Sept. 13, 2011 at school. She remembered that day, she told the jury, because Robinson was not a regular school-goer and was frequently absent.
Smith said she, Robinson, and a group of other friends walked home that afternoon to the north side of the borough, and then she and Robinson spent several hours hanging out at various locations that afternoon and evening – watching basketball, eating at a popular pizza shop, and talking until after dark.
“There’s not much to do in Phoenixville except play and chill,” Smith said.
Her testimony contradicted a sequence of events that Williams, the man who ultimately shot Lopez-Maurico with the gun he said was given him by Robinson, laid out for the afternoon and evening before the robbery. He said he met Robinson at school, and she walked him to her home on Dayton Avenue, where she retrieved a .22 semi-automatic pistol they agreed could be used in a robbery.
Under cross-examination, however, Smith was challenged on whether she remembered being with Robinson specifically on Sept. 13, 2011. She said she did, although she also said she could not remember the other people she and Robinson walked home with that day.
Chester County detective Joseph Walton, however, later took the stand to testify that he had interviewed Smith on Wednesday morning, and she told him three times that she could not recall whether the events happened the day before the homicide, or some other time.