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In re Robertson

January 24, 2008


Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (VSP-785-99) (Hon. Linda Kay Davis,Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Argued January 9, 2007

Before FARRELL and REID, Associate Judges, and KERN, Senior Judge.

Appellant, John Robertson, appeals from the trial court's denial of his motion to vacate his criminal contempt convictions (Appeal No. 04-FM-1269). He essentially contends that (1) the trial court violated his due process rights by failing to vacate his contempt conviction in light of his plea agreement with the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia ("United States Attorney's Office"); and (2) the trial court erred by failing to find that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel when he did not move to dismiss the criminal contempt proceeding on the basis of the plea agreement.

Mr. Robertson also lodged an earlier appeal challenging his criminal contempt convictions in the trial court (Appeal No. 00-FM-925). After a bench trial, the court had found him guilty of three counts of violating a civil protection order ("CPO") obtained by Ms. Watson. He claims that the trial court erred by (1) misapplying the law of self-defense with respect to one count of his criminal contempt convictions; and (2) rejecting his demand for a jury trial.

Following oral argument relating to these consolidated appeals, we invited the United States Attorney to file a brief pertaining to the appeal concerning the alleged violation of Mr. Robertson's plea agreement, and we requested responses to the government's brief from Mr. Robertson and Ms. Watson. In addition, we granted the request of several public interest groups to file an amicus brief in support of Ms. Watson.

We hold that the trial court (1) did not violate Mr. Robertson's plea agreement with the United States' Attorney's office by permitting Ms. Watson to enforce her CPO against him, and (2) for that reason, correctly ruled that Mr. Robertson's right to the effective assistance of counsel had not been violated (Appeal No. 04-FM-1269). In addition, we conclude that the trial court correctly rejected Mr. Robertson's claim of self-defense and his demand for a jury trial.


The record shows that on March 29, 1999, Ms. Watson filed a "Petition and Affidavit For Civil Protection Order" in the Family Division, Domestic Relations Branch, of the Superior Court. She alleged that on March 27, 1999, Mr. Robertson repeatedly pursued and hit her on various parts of her body, including her head and face, with his closed fist; kicked her several times in the head with his heavy work shoes; and threatened to kill her while holding a pocket knife. She suffered a black eye and head injuries. At Ms. Watson's request, the Family Division issued a temporary protection order on March 29, 1999. On April 26, 1999, the Office of Corporation Counsel (now the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia ("OAG")) entered its appearance on behalf of Ms. Watson in the Family Court, and after a hearing that same day, the Domestic Violence Unit of the Superior Court issued a CPO, effective for twelve months, ordering that Mr. Robertson not assault, threaten, harass, or physically abuse Ms. Watson in any manner; stay away from Ms. Watson's person, home, and workplace; and avoid contacting Ms. Watson in any manner.

On March 29, 1999, Mr. Robertson was charged by complaint in the Superior Court, Criminal Division, with one count of aggravated assault based on the March 27, 1999, incident. On July 8, 1999, a grand jury indicted Mr. Robertson on one count of aggravated assault and two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon. On July 20, 1999, Mr. Robertson entered into a plea agreement with the United States Attorney's Office in which he agreed to plead guilty to one count of felony attempted-aggravated assault related to the March 27, 1999 incident, and in return the United States agreed that it would "not pursue any charges concerning an incident on June 26, [19]99."

On January 28, 2000, Ms. Watson, represented by Corporation Counsel, filed a motion to adjudicate Mr. Robertson in criminal contempt for violations of the CPO, based on incidents between Mr. Robertson and Ms. Watson on June 26 and 27, 1999. She also made a motion to modify and extend the CPO. To support her motion to adjudicate contempt, Ms. Watson submitted an affidavit stating, in part, that (1) on June 26, Mr. Robertson "harassed [her] by repeatedly demanding that [she] drop the criminal charges that were pending against him," and he called her names (Count 1); (2) on June 26, Mr. Robertson "pushed [her] and knocked [her] into a wall" and called her names (Count 2); (3) on June 26/27, around midnight, Mr. Robertson harassed her by repeatedly cursing her (Count 3); (4) on June 26/27, after midnight, Mr. Robertson "physically attacked [her] in the living room," and followed her into the bathroom where he "repeatedly punched [her] in the head and face" (Count 4); (5) and on June 27, a short time after the living room and bathroom incident, Mr. Robertson "threw drain cleaner at [her]" and caused "lye burns" resulting in her hospitalization in an intensive care unit (Count 5). During a status hearing on April 4, 2000, the parties agreed to extend the CPO, which had been modified by consent on January 31, 2000, until May 30, 2000.

Mr. Robertson filed a demand for a jury trial on April 3, 2000, which Ms. Watson opposed. On May 9, 2000, the Family Court entered an order rejecting Mr. Robertson's jury trial demand and proceeded on May 10 and 11, 2000, with a bench trial to resolve the motion to adjudicate criminal contempt and the motion to modify and extend the CPO. After hearing testimony from Ms. Watson and her mother, Jacqueline Watson, and from defense witness, Vallace Player, and crediting that of Ms. Watson with respect to the first and second counts, the trial judge found beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Robertson "harassed Ms. Watson [on June 26, 1999] by making his request that she drop criminal charges and calling her names and . . . by pushing her into a wall [Counts 1 and 2]." The court determined that "[i]n doing those acts he violated willfully the [CPO]." With respect to Counts 3 and 4, the trial court credited the testimony of Ms. Player that all three persons in the house that night "were cursing and behaving in . . . an abominable fashion," and that Ms. Watson was the instigator of the fight because she taunted Mr. Robertson, opened a can of draino over which Mr. Robertson and Ms. Watson fought and bit each other. The court found Mr. Robertson not guilty of Counts 3 and 4. As for the final count, Count 5, "the throwing of the lye," the trial court credited Ms. Player's testimony. After it was clear that Mr. Robertson "had won the fight convincingly," and "Ms. Watson was down on the ground bleeding badly," Ms. Player asked Mr. Robertson to leave. The trial court found that Mr. Robertson "had ten seconds to get away," but "[i]nstead [Mr. Robertson] stayed there, [] had the lye in [his] hand and . . . threw it on [Ms. Watson]." The court determined that Mr. Robertson's assault in throwing the lye at that point was not "any kind of self-defense." Consequently the court adjudged him guilty of Count 5.

Following the trial court's finding on May 11, 2000, that Mr. Robertson was guilty of three counts, the trial judge sentenced him to three consecutive 180-day jail terms, with execution of one of those sentences suspended in favor of five years of probation. The court also ordered Mr. Robertson to pay $10,009.23 in restitution pertaining to medical expenses incurred by Ms. Watson which were paid from the Victims of Crime Compensation Fund. Mr. Robertson filed a timely appeal.

Years later, on November 13, 2003, Mr. Robertson filed a motion, pursuant to D.C. Code § 23-110, to vacate his contempt convictions on the grounds that the contempt proceeding violated his July 28, 2000 plea agreement with the United States.*fn1 He further argued that his convictions should be vacated because "his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to . . . move to dismiss the [contempt charges], when the government was pursuing criminal charges in violation of a binding plea agreement." Ms. Watson filed an opposition to the motion on January 23, 2004. In an order signed on August 27, 2004, the trial court denied Mr. Robertson's motion to vacate the convictions, (1) "find[ing] that the plea agreement . . . is binding only on the government and not on any party seeking to vindicate a right against the respondent arising from the events of June 26, 1999"; and (2) "conclud[ing] that the Office of Corporation Counsel is ...

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