'Free Bob,' the Richardson murder case in a time warp [Commentary]

Having seen a few first-degree murder cases tried in the old "ceremonial" courtroom in Bel Air – going way back to before the whole room was turned 180 degrees when the courthouse addition was built in the early 1980s – I was more than a little curious to check out the latest proceeding in the Robert Richardson III case a few weeks ago.

If you have been hiding under a rock for the past 13 months the basic facts, according to the police who investigated, are these: Richardson, who was 16 at the time, allegedly shot his father, Robert Richardson Jr., 58, to death during an argument in their home on Moores Mill Road on the evening of Jan. 9, 2012. The son then allegedly loaded the father's body into the trunk of a car and drove it to a relative's home near Ripken Stadium, where he dumped it on the edge of pond. He crashed the car on South Main Street in Bel Air early on Jan. 10 and was arrested. Police say he "confessed" to the killing and led them to the body.

This would seem to be the proverbial open and shut case, except Richardson has a small group of people, crusading, if you will, under the name "Free Bob Richardson," who think he's essentially getting railroaded by the criminal justice system. They claim Richardson, whose mother died from cancer several years ago, was constantly abused by his father and struck back in self-defense. Members of the group have held fund-raisers on his behalf and made jail visits to keep up his spirits. They also have appeared a public several events in town to show their solidarity with Richardson and to remind others that he continues to live in an adult jail, albeit in isolation, where he is the youngest person in a population of several hundred men and women, no doubt more than a few hardened criminals among them.

On the afternoon of Jan. 16, Richardson's supporters gathered in front of the courthouse on Main Street about an hour before a hearing on a motion by his lawyers - public defenders who specialize in representing murder defendants - to be allowed face-to-face visits with the client at the detention center. Watching these folks, maybe 25 in all, who ranged in age from high school to a few in their late 50s or early 60s and included Richardson's older sister, Abigail, I thought I might have been time transported back to the 1960s Vietnam protests, but without the venom. The nature of the hearing meant Richardson would be present, and several supporters had explained beforehand they were going to be in the courtroom to show Richardson they haven't forgotten him and are standing with him.

The start of the hearing was delayed 25 minutes while another case wrapped up. When it was finally about to start, about 35 people filed into the courtroom gallery. Six Harford County sheriff's deputies were also in the courtroom to provide the security. Sheriff Jesse Bane, in business attire, sat in the gallery, one of a handful of other spectators who didn't appear to be with the pro-Richardson people. There seemed to be an extraordinary amount of security, but I've since been told that isn't unusual in this day and age of gangs and terrorists and religious fanatics.

Circuit Judge Stephen Waldron came into the courtroom and sat down on the bench, welcomed the audience and then stood up to leave, explaining it had been a "dress rehearsal," because Richardson's arrival from the jail had been delayed. The judge was almost out the door leading to his chambers and many in the audience were still standing, when two deputies led Richardson, in shackles, into the courtroom.

Richardson, who turned 17 in September, was dressed in the detention center's inmate stripes, that were a few sizes too big for him. Pale and short of stature, he looked several years younger than his age, frankly like a lost kid who was wandering in the middle of a train station or some other public gathering place. I know appearances can be deceiving, but "surreal" is about the only word I can muster to adequately express what I saw. As the deputies led him toward the defense table, several of his supporters, still standing, waved and some made what appeared to the American Sign Language sign for "I love you." He was clearly moved and his face brightened, if only for a moment.

As Richardson crossed in front of the bench, other deputies quickly cleared some of the supporters out of the first row of the gallery nearest to where Richardson was to sit, a security measure. Once Richardson was seated, the two deputies who escorted him into the room stood close behind him, so that from some vantage points in the gallery, which is raised from the trial area, it was difficult to see him completely. Another deputy stood at the back of the gallery, another stood to the left of the defense table and two more said in the first row, their presence daring anyone to disrupt the proceedings.

The hearing itself took less than 10 minutes. An agreement concerning the jail visits had been reached beforehand among the various lawyers involved. Waldron was handed the agreement, read and signed it and urged the lawyers to contact him with any concerns, pledging to deal with them "expeditiously." Appearing to address everyone in the courtroom, the judge then said cordially, "I'll be seeing you all again," and adjourned the hearing.

All the Richardson supporters remained standing quietly in the gallery after Waldron left the courtroom and Richardson was led away to be driven back to the jail, where he remains at this writing, as the legal machinations in his case continue. Surreal indeed.

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