Victor Levi Colbert nearly pleaded guilty Wednesday to committing a 2012 murder in Bel Air, likely condemning himself to 40 years in prison, but he rejected the plea at the last minute and will put his fate in the hands of a jury when his trial continues Thursday.
“I’m not going to get tricked; you’re not going to trick me,” Colbert, 36, told Assistant State’s Attorney Cristin Treaster at the end of proceedings late Wednesday afternoon in Harford County Circuit Court in Bel Air.
The defense and prosecution will present their closing arguments to the jury Thursday morning, nearly two weeks after the trial started.
Colbert, a former Dundalk resident, has been defending himself against charges of first-degree murder and wearing and carrying a dangerous weapon with intent to injure. He is accused of stabbing 52-year-old Rodney Holmes Smith to death in December 2012.
Police found Smith’s body Dec. 8, 2012, in his apartment in the 200 block of Baltimore Pike. Colbert was arrested at his residence three days later, and he has been held in the Harford County Detention Center on no bail since then.
Testimony in Colbert’s trial before Judge M. Elizabeth Bowen began Dec. 4 after nearly five years of delays.
Colbert has made repeated challenges to the state’s evidence and police witnesses since the trial started. Treaster, the prosecutor, has made multiple objections as Colbert cross-examined witnesses and tried to make his case that investigators and experts were either incompetent or allegedly planted evidence against him.
Bowen has convened multiple bench conferences, out of earshot of the jury and courtroom spectators, and she admonished Colbert in open court several times — with the jury sent out — for not following her instructions on courtroom conduct and pressing his case on matters she ruled were inadmissible.
“I have given you extraordinary latitude because you are representing yourself,” Bowen told Colbert late Tuesday afternoon.
The same issues came up Wednesday morning. Bowen called four bench conferences within about 30 minutes before the lunch break over Treaster’s objections to Colbert’s questioning of a Harford County Sheriff’s Office detective.
Colbert told Bowen “you’re very prejudiced,” saying she had favored the prosecution, as she issued another warning about his conduct shortly before lunch. The jury was out of the courtroom at the time.
“It’s like everything that I do gets blocked by the state,” Colbert complained.
Bowen stressed “the record in this case speaks for itself.” She cited “the rules of evidence” to support sustaining the state’s objections.
Colbert, who expressed his belief that the jury could see the judge has favored the prosecution, remained unconvinced.
Smith’s parents have been in the courtroom throughout the trial.
“I don’t want to spend my life in prison for something I did not do,” Colbert said.
At one point he offered to plead guilty to second-degree murder and accept a 30-year prison sentence. Treaster said she would have to consult with Smith’s parents, but “my inclination is to say, ‘no.’”
Bowen called a recess around 3 p.m. so Treaster could confer with Smith’s parents and then Colbert.
They returned to the courtroom with an agreement that Colbert would plead guilty to first-degree murder and accept a sentence of life in prison with all but 40 years suspended, plus credit for time spent in the county jail. The jury was not present in the courtroom.
Bowen recommended Colbert serve five years’ probation once he leaves prison, since he would be eligible for parole.
But Colbert’s support for the guilty plea waned as the judge explained the details. She asked him to confirm that he was admitting guilt for the murder.
“I’m accepting the plea, but I don’t want to answer that question,” Colbert replied.
The discussion then shifted to Colbert offering an Alford plea, in which a defendant maintains innocence but agrees the state has enough evidence for a conviction.
The 40-year prison sentence would remain, Bowen warned.
She asked Colbert if he has any physical or mental health issues.
“Sometimes I just second-guess myself because I’ve been through so much since I was locked up,” he said.
Colbert was found incompetent to stand trial in 2014, but then found “not incompetent” to stand trial in 2016, according to online court records.
The impending plea agreement then hit another snag when Bowen warned Colbert that his plea could affect his parole and probation statuses from prior cases, leading to more jail time on top of his sentence in the murder case.
Colbert asked to speak with a lawyer, and Bowen called another recess so he could talk with the public defender’s office.
Public defenders Bruce Andres and Eric Macdonell appeared in the courtroom a short time later and met with Colbert.
They stood beside the defense side of the table when Bowen reconvened court. She tried to explain to Colbert how his guilty plea for murder could affect prior cases, but the process snagged again as the defendant, judge, public defenders and prosecutors tried to figure out which prior cases would be affected and could add prison time.
Soon, however, Colbert and Bowen ultimately agreed he would not plead guilty. Colbert declared he would not be tricked, gathered his paperwork and was escorted out of the courtroom and back to jail.
Bowen said closing arguments would proceed Thursday morning.