Charged in confinement case, defendant to represent self

Thursday, April 25, 2013
Michael Shane Witt

Tucked behind his Putnam Superior Court bench, Judge Denny Bridges has kept a one-word, Post-it Note reminder so long his staff turned the self-imposed advice into a paperweight.

"Patience," it reads.

And the judge certainly needed every ounce of that virtue (not to mention the biblical wisdom of Job) Wednesday, perhaps even to keep from throwing that paperweight across the courtroom.

Proceedings grew tense and a tad heated with the appearance of defendant Michael Shane Witt, the 34-year-old Cloverdale man charged with neglect of a dependent, battery causing bodily injury and domestic battery as a result of a Dec. 29 incident at the Cloverdale home he shared with six children and stepchildren.

Witt was seeking the removal of his court-appointed attorney and told the judge he wanted to represent himself in a case that could see him get up to eight years in prison if convicted of a Class C felony (he also faces a Class D felony and a Class A misdemeanor).

"Quite frankly, I'm not sure what you're doing," Judge Bridges said, opening with a poker face and looking for a straight answer.

"You want a fast and speedy trial but you won't sign the waiver of a jury trial," the judge continued, telling the defendant since he had a lawyer (Scott Adams), he needed to talk to him about requesting a bench trial and stop filing his own motions with the court.

Witt said something nearly inaudible about asking for a bench trial.

"It didn't get ruled on," the judge responded, "because you can't submit things to the court yourself when you have an attorney."

That's part of the rules of the court, the defedant was told.

But that only served to rile him up.

"I know the rules of this state, I've lived here 34 years," he countered. "I don't want this lawyer. I'll just represent myself in court."

Not a wise move in a felony case, it was suggested.

"Do you really want to do that? You're facing a maximum (sentence) of eight years in prison," Bridges reminded him. "You don't understand court rules."

Witt virtually cut off the judge in mid-sentence.

"My wife (April Wilson-Witt) is facing basically the same charges," he said, "and her butt is out (of jail).

"I really don't want this attorney and I really don't want this judge," he continued. "I've not been in trouble for six whole years."

Bridges was done cutting him some slack.

"Just as an analogy," the judge responded, "I haven't been in trouble for six years either and I've never been arrested in my life.

"The first thing you need to do," he said, raising his voice to caution Witt, "is to stop talking when I'm talking, are we clear on that?"

It was the next response that must have had Bridges staring at his "Patience" paperweight.

"We're clear on that, Buddy," Witt replied.

Not "Your Honor" or "Judge," or "Sir," but "Buddy."

That remark caused Courthouse Security Officer Mike O'Hair to quickly move in behind the defendant.

"Let's go," O'Hair said sternly, gesturing for Witt to get up to be escorted out.

Bridges, however, restored order with a wave of his hand and simple "No, no."

The judge suggested "a competency issue" might be looming after witnessing Witt's courtroom actions and jailhouse lawyer logic.

"If a man says he doesn't want a jury trial but refuses to sign a waiver of a jury trial, it indicates we may have a competency issue going on," Bridges said.

Prosecutor Tim Bookwalter noted that Witt has also corresponded with him several times. And reading between the lines and hearing the defendant say he was off his medication more than two weeks before the "cruel confinement" incident occurred, has given the prosecutor pause.

"There seems to be some underlying mental health issues," Bookwalter acknowledged.

Bridges seemed surprised Witt was willingly working with the prosecutor yet apparently at odds with his own attorney.

Witt insinuated that the attorney was trying to intentionally aggravate him and provoke him to become violent.

Adams assured he had done nothing of the kind and had been clearly cooperating with discovery and plea-bargain issues and questions in Witt's defense.

"If I gave you a new attorney," Bridges asked Witt, "what assurance can you give me that you won't treat him the same way you have Mr. Adams?"

Witt was apparently honest. "I can't guarantee it," he said.

With Adams' blessing, Bridges withdrew his appearance as Witt's public defender and granted a June 14 bench trial to begin at 1 p.m.

Witt is due to represent himself at that trial in front of a judge he just referred to as "Buddy." However, Bridges appointed Scott Bienick to serve as standby counsel in case any legal matters arise that Witt may need assistance in interpreting.

"I'm willing to trust in the justice of the court system," Witt said. "I have enough evidence on my side. I don't need to beat around the bush with some of this other nonsense."

Angry that he has not seen his son in four months since being arrested in the highly publicized Cloverdale confinement case, Witt added, "Putnam County just isn't doing its job, sad to say."

After reportedly becoming enraged that his 10-year-old stepson spilled sugar on the kitchen floor, Witt allegedly confined the boy in a room without access to food, water or toilet facilities.

His wife told police that Shane had poked the boy who spilled the sugar on top of his head and then elbowed her in the head and face.

While interviewing the estranged wife, officers noted a "strong odor of urine and feces" coming from a back bedroom area. They observed a closed door with a rectangular piece cut out and an extension cord coming out, making it resemble a cell door.

After asking the wife to open the door to what the Witts claimed was a play area for he children, officers discovered a stool with a circle cut out of the seat had been positioned over a trashcan fitted with a trash bag to collect human urine and feces.

Witt was arrested last Dec. 29 and has remained in the Putnam County Jail ever since. His wife was arrested Jan. 10 and has since been released.