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Posted on Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

Man who caused outburst in courtroom faces competency examination

By John Counts

The man who caused an uproar that shocked an entire courtroom last week will return to the Washtenaw County Trial Court Friday for a competency examination.

Donald Roberts, 65, attempted to knock over a lectern before attacking attorney John Vella in Judge David Swartz’s court Aug. 9.


Donald Roberts

Courtesy of the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office

Roberts had been representing himself in the matter. Vella, who was a few feet away at the defense table, was ordered as his stand-by counsel by the judge in the matter.

Before the violent outburst, Roberts complained about the state of the law library at the jail and said he thought Swartz should be disqualified. He also told the court he had no need for an attorney.

Assistant Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brenda Taylor then told the court that a doctor at the Center for Forensic Psychiatry in Ypsilanti had recently found Roberts incompetent to stand trial. Despite that, Roberts still has the right to a hearing in the matter.

After deputies from the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office brought down Roberts and hauled him out of the court, Swartz appointed Vella as counsel for Friday’s competency hearing.

Roberts is accused of unarmed robbery, refusing fingerprinting and assault with intent to rob while unarmed over an incident that occurred at the Blake Transit Center in Ann Arbor on July 2, 2011. Lt. Renee Bush of the Ann Arbor Police Department said Roberts was highly intoxicated and was being taken to a health center from the bus stop after complaining of being assaulted after trying to buy marijuana.

Police also said a male victim described a different scenario. Bush said the man told police he was downtown near South Fourth Avenue and East William Street when Roberts assaulted him and took money.

As of last week, Roberts was being held at the county jail on $10,000 cash bond, according to jail records. There was no current address listed for Roberts in court records. reporter Kyle Feldscher contributed to this report.

John Counts covers cops and courts for He can be reached at or you can follow him on Twitter.



Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 8:57 p.m.

Donald is a life-long Ann Arborite. He is gentle, thoughtful, quiet and not crazy but he can't deal with alcohol. He was taking creative writing classes when he was out of jail last year and probably actually wanted to use a library but the authorities assumed he was just another drunk, old, gaunt, panhandler and treated him with disrespect. He has spent his life dealing with a system that always assumes he is up to no good and at age 65, his golden years, he is being sentenced to life in some facility for being old, poor, and black.


Mon, Aug 20, 2012 : 1:54 a.m.

I question your assessment of Mr. Roberts as "gentle, thoughtful, quiet and not crazy..." given his behavior in the court room (presumably he was not intoxicated at the time of his outburst). The bar for being competent to stand trial is pretty darn low, so if he was found not competent, he is almost certainly mentally ill, and severely so at that (allegedly). No one wants aggressive, mentally ill, often-intoxicated people roaming the streets, hassling passers-by, and committing petty and not-so-petty crimes, but our society decided 30+ years ago that it was no longer interested in long-term hospitalization of the mentally ill, and this is the result. We need not wonder why the jails and prisons are the biggest providers of mental health treatment in our state (and probably every state).

P. J. Murphy

Sat, Aug 18, 2012 : 1:12 a.m.

Really? So those who are poor, a minority, or mentally ill get the same treatment in court as those who have money, status, and contacts? You aren't really saying that are you? Because if so, you need to rush downtown asap and catch a few sessions.


Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 10:02 p.m.

He will be sentenced to robbery if convicted, not being old, poor and black


Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 8:08 p.m.

At least he will have a place to stay now...

P. J. Murphy

Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 6:18 p.m.

A few decades back, I worked at the Center for Forensic Psychiatry for a couple of years. It gave me a real education about the plight of mentally ill people and our criminal justice system. It's true that's that there is nothing easy about dealing with some mentally ill people. They can be difficult, contrary, and even in some cases dangerous. But it's also true that they are struggling with problems the rest of us can be sincerely grateful we don't have to cope with. Social services for such citizens are sparse, and in an era of declining budgets, further evaporating . Inevitably, some end up entangled with the law, and let me assure you, our courts are ill equipped to cope with such problems. Realistically judges have few options, and the more honest among them will admit to dispensing little justice and less mercy when confronted with mentally ill defendants. A bored, perhaps distracted, judge's quip, and the mini-brawl that followed makes for a titillating video clip. Sure it's darkly comic, if that's your taste, but it's also a pretty accurate, if slightly dramatic snapshot of a system that doesn't even come close to helping a troubled man. It's a easy vignette to trivialize or forget, but you might also consider it's also evidence of a society that's yet to find a humane solution to a problem that's been around for a long time, not going away, and serves, I think, as a measure of just how civilized we really are.


Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 5:16 p.m.

"...a male victim described a different scenario. Bush said the man told police he was downtown near South Fourth Avenue and East William Street when Roberts assaulted him and took money." -- So we're focused on the weird old fellow's erratic / inappropriate behavior: and too busy to look at what one of his "alleged victims" has to say. Attention-getting behavior is a standing joke among anthropologists. It's not rocket science: we have "ample" numbers of weird folk panhandling aggressively on the streets of Ann Arbor. The reason we see so much of this kind of behavior is because these errant street performers KNOW we're not armed. Likewise: they KNOW they can depend on being put through "competency tests" instead of being cited for contempt of court. If any normal person disrupted a court like this- we know what the judge would do to them. When are we going to stop catering to the eccentric whims of panhandlers in this town?


Mon, Aug 20, 2012 : 1:41 a.m.

The staff at Forensics Center had already rendered the opinion that Mr. Roberts was not competent to stand trial before the incident in the court room. Your assertion that he was going to be "put through 'competency tests'" because of this outburst is therefore false. I have to wonder what you mean when you write that we have aggressive vagrants because they "KNOW we're not armed." Are you suggesting that we should go around executing beggars?

Jack Campbell

Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 5:09 p.m.

One less violent vagrant walking the streets of A2. Only 100+ more to go!

Linda Peck

Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 4:40 p.m.

I thought the Judge's response to the defendant's question to talk about discovery was too informal from the bench. Perhaps the nonchalant response was what made this man angry. I am not excusing anything, just wondering about the lack of respect that I imagine the defendant may have felt. Maybe this is too subtle a criticism, but people do get sensitive when they are disrespected.


Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 8:49 p.m.

I think the way the defendant asked the question was disrespectful...

Madeleine Borthwick

Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 4:02 p.m.

Wow. this guy needs to go away. now. permanently.

Superior Twp voter

Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 3:57 p.m.

The female sitting in the gallery laughing, smiling, and providing a "thumbs-up" to this guy's actions says it all. Nice.


Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 1:52 p.m.

this is sad. old guy will probably be treated better behind bars anyway.


Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 1:43 p.m.

Haha that video is great too bad we see Hon. Swartz sour mug instead of Mr. Roberts actions I think we missed the best part! Wonder what Mr. Vella said to set him off? Maybe all the public art around there caused him to reflect on his situation...


Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 1:35 p.m.

I've met and spoken with this guy on many occasions around town and I never got the impression he was incompetent, he seemed more militant and pissed at being marginalized. Court appointed attourneys ARE crappy representation. Guys like this are in and out of the system and get that feeling that they are being harassed by "the man" which is probably true. It's easier for cops to tell Mr. Roberts, like Shakey Jake and others before him, to "keep moving" than it is to help them. Well, hopefully he will get the help he needs.


Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 2:02 p.m.

I bet a tazer and night sticks might be the tools DJBudSonic is talking about. Cops are not doctors.


Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 1:53 p.m.

And just how are the cops suppose to help mr roberts? Give him a class on not robbing people?


Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 12:01 p.m.

This courtroom video is great! It sure would be great if could have a library of all the courtroom videos in Washtenaw County I would love for people to see what goes on in Judge Connor's courtroom than people could see why he needs to be voted out of office.


Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 2 p.m.

Trash talking a judge with nothing to back it up, if Connor's is such a bad judge why don't you get the videos yourself and post them to youtube, then link them here.


Fri, Aug 17, 2012 : 10:59 a.m.

This borders on youthful indiscretion and, by the way, the replay function is much appreciated.