Man's conviction for Franklin County prison rape upheld

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldJuly 13, 2012 

— A convicted rapist does not deserve a new Franklin County trial on the grounds his rights were violated because it was his own erratic behavior and courtroom rants that dragged the case out for almost four years, an appeals court said Thursday.

David Webster cycled through seven court-appointed attorneys before eventually opting to represent himself in 2009 on charges he sexually assaulted his cellmate several times in one night.

He believes the second-degree rape conviction out of Franklin County Superior Court should be tossed since it took so long to get the case before a jury. The case was filed in August 2005 -- almost two years after the crime occurred -- and went to trial in April 2009.

A three-judge panel of the Washington state Court of Appeals found that "the lengthy delay was almost exclusively self-inflicted."

Each time Webster had a "breakdown in communication" with his attorney, a new one would step in and request extra time to investigate the allegations and interview dozens of witnesses. That pattern repeated several times, with two of the seven lawyers walking away before formally committing to the case.

"The actual reasons for the delay were overwhelmingly attributable to Mr. Webster's antics," according to the court's opinion. "Absent a one-week continuance requested by the State and a joint continuance to test newly discovered evidence, the other 10 continuances were all requested by the defense, mostly to permit each of Mr. Webster's five attorneys to ensure that his representation was competent."

Assistant Attorney General Melanie Tratnik, who prosecuted the case for Franklin County because of a conflict, announced she was ready for trial two months after filing the case and opposed most of the ensuing delays, the opinion noted.

Webster was sentenced by Judge Cameron Mitchell in July 2009 to a minimum prison term of 20 years and five months. His ultimate release date is up to a state review board because it is a sex crime.

However, Webster won't even start serving that sentence until he is done with a 26-year term for second-degree assault and solicitation to commit first-degree murder.

In that unrelated case, another Franklin County Superior Court jury convicted Webster of attacking a woman and biting off her eyebrow and later trying to hire an undercover cop to kill her so the case would go away.

It was just days after that guilty verdict that he raped a man who was locked down with him overnight in the Franklin County jail.

Webster claimed the September 2003 incident was consensual sex and that he'd been set up by his cellmate in a plot against the county to get money.

The man told jurors Webster threatened to kill him and his family if he resisted. He believed that if he fought back or called for help from the corrections officers, it would be too late once help arrived.

He reported the rape immediately after the cell doors opened the next morning for breakfast.

The man is not named under a Herald policy not to identify people who report being sexually assaulted.

Jurors deadlocked 9-3 on two additional rape charges.

The rape conviction was a second strike for Webster under Washington's "three strikes" law. Webster was 16 when he first entered the judicial system and has spent most of his time in custody for violent crimes.

Webster also argued in his appeal that he was prejudiced by the delay because he was locked up while the trial was pending, even though he acknowledged he would have been incarcerated regardless since he was serving the assault sentence.

However, he claimed there was a difference between being held at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla and at the county jail, where his movements were significantly restricted.

The opinion pointed out that he was held at the jail at the request of defense lawyers so they could easily communicate with him, instead of driving an hour to the state prison.

The judges also noted that it was Webster's behavior that landed him in the jail's solitary confinement since he'd been threatening staff, including employees who were witnesses in the rape case.

Webster failed to persuade the appeals panel that his ability to defend the case was impaired by this, the opinion said.

The only factor the panel found that "weighs slightly in his favor" was that the lengthy delay between filing and trial was "presumptively prejudicial" because the case was a simple question of whether sexual intercourse took place, and if it was rape or consensual.

Also, prosecutors had no eyewitness testimony, instead relying largely on corrections officers and medical staff who encountered the two men shortly before or after the allegations.

But the appeals panel said that argument was overcome by "the totality of the circumstances," especially since Webster caused many of the delays.

The court also dismissed a petition by Webster challenging his 2003 assault conviction. It was his seventh attempt to get that verdict thrown out, and like the others is "untimely, successive and frivolous," the opinion said.

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