Joshua Nisbet, a criminal defendant described as so uncooperative with his court-appointed attorneys that a judge stripped him of his constitutional right to a lawyer, was polite, deferential and self-effacing Monday as he began representing himself on the first day of his trial on a robbery charge.
Nisbet, who turns 37 on Tuesday, drew some chuckles from jurors and apologized to a witness he questioned on the first day of his trial in the Cumberland County Courthouse.
The defendant, dressed in a pink-striped shirt and pink-patterned tie, stood in sharp contrast to the obstinate, “paranoid” man described by Justice Thomas Warren when he issued his order – unprecedented in Maine – that Nisbet had “forfeited his right to counsel.”
The agreeable face Nisbet showed in court also contrasted sharply with the masked face of the robber described by store clerk Diane Angers on the witness stand Monday as she wiped away tears and recalled being threatened with a knife on July 15, 2011, at the Mobil Mart on Main Street in South Portland.
“He was pointing the knife at my gut, and when I hesitated (at the register), he did this to me,” Angers told the jury, demonstrating a thrusting motion with her arm.
The robber did not actually stab Angers, but police found her “petrified,” crying and hardly able to put a sentence together when they arrived minutes later, South Portland police Officer Kevin Sager testified. The suspect escaped with $416 or $417 in cash.
Nisbet did not cross-examine Angers after her testimony.
Nisbet has been through five court-appointed attorneys in the nearly three years he has been in custody at Cumberland County Jail in Portland. He has been jailed since his arrest following a police standoff that involved a SWAT team days after the robbery.
Each of Nisbet’s prior attorneys sought to withdraw from his case after citing serious breakdowns in the attorney-client relationship. In a Press Herald interview at the jail last month, Nisbet said each of the lawyers had begun to work against him.
His two most recent attorneys, Jon Gale and Neale Duffett, withdrew from the case after they said Nisbet violently threatened Gale during a jail visit on Feb. 26, saying he would hunt down the lawyer and shoot his eye out with a high-powered BB gun. Nisbet denied making that threat.
“I am representing myself (over) my objection, and I am only doing this under duress in this crazy situation,” Nisbet told the judge on Monday morning before the jurors were brought into the courtroom.
Warren has assigned two standby attorneys, Luke Rioux and Mark Peltier, to assist Nisbet at the trial. Rioux spoke on several occasions on Nisbet’s behalf and whispered with him at the defense table, but Nisbet spoke mostly for himself.
Nisbet wavered during the morning on whether he would deliver an opening statement to the jury, but decided to speak briefly after consulting over the lunch break with Rioux.
“I’m very nervous right now. I’m not an attorney,” Nisbet told the jurors. He said he disagreed with many of the accusations against him.
Nisbet has pleaded not guilty to the Class A felony robbery charge. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.
The prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Bud Ellis, said in his opening statement that the robber initially eluded police on the night of the holdup, but that an investigation quickly led to Nisbet in the days that followed.
Nisbet was fired from a Scarborough landscaping job the morning before the robbery, and his former boss had called police to report what he considered threatening behavior, Ellis said.
A Scarborough police officer who served Nisbet with a job-related restraining order two days later recognized a tattoo on Nisbet’s neck that looked like the robbery suspect’s tattoo, which was captured in a security camera image at the Mobil Mart, the prosecutor said.
When South Portland police detectives interviewed Nisbet’s mother, Dani Nisbet, she gave them a pair of her son’s pants that matched those worn by the robber and recognized the orange long-sleeved shirt worn by the robber in the security camera image, Ellis said.
“She said, ‘That’s my son,’ ” Ellis said.
Dani Nisbet, who Nisbet expects to call as a witness later in the trial, has disputed the account given by police.
Michael Barker, a convicted felon who owns the South Portland home where Nisbet was arrested, testified that he disposed of Nisbet’s gloves and mask after Nisbet asked him to “get rid of them.”
The trial is scheduled to continue Tuesday morning.
Scott Dolan can be reached at 791-6304 or at: