AUGUSTA –– Justices of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court peppered lawyers on both sides with skeptical questions Wednesday during an appeal hearing for Joshua Nisbet, who is seeking a new trial because a judge stripped him of his right to an attorney when he was tried on a robbery charge last year.

Nisbet, 38, of Scarborough, refused to cooperate with a series of court-appointed lawyers leading up to his trial, and threatened two of them, before a judge ordered him to represent himself. He may have been the first defendant in Maine to be stripped of his constitutional right to an attorney at trial.

Nisbet was convicted of the robbery charge May 1, 2014, and sentenced to serve seven years in prison.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling on the appeal could have broad implications for any criminal defendant in Maine who cannot afford to hire an attorney. The court made no immediate ruling on Nisbet’s appeal Wednesday.

His lawyer for the appeal, Jamesa Drake, argued that Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren could have taken other measures to deal with Nisbet’s uncooperative behavior, but Justice Ellen Gorman seemed skeptical.

“He was already in jail, so how do you think the trial court could have changed his behavior?” Gorman asked. “Starving him? What option did the court really have?”

But other justices were equally skeptical of Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin’s argument that Nisbet’s behavior was cause for forfeiting his right to a lawyer.

“So people with volatile personalities, temper issues and a tendency to shoot their mouths off really can’t have attorneys?” Justice Andrew Mead asked Robbin.

The Supreme Judicial Court heard the oral arguments at the new Capital Judicial Center in Augusta, using the restored historic courtroom from the annexed Kennebec County Superior Court. The courtroom was first used by the state’s highest court in 1830 and there hasn’t been an appellate case heard there in nearly 30 years.

If the court denies Nisbet’s appeal, it could weaken Sixth Amendment guarantees of legal assistance to those charged with a crime, setting a precedent in Maine cases. Legal filings in Nisbet’s appeal cite only similar out-of-state cases, with no precedents in Maine.

At Nisbet’s trial, he had to make his own opening and closing statements and cross-examine witnesses. Justice Warren appointed him two standby lawyers, Luke Rioux and Mark Peltier, who sat at the defense table and offered whispered advice, but only Nisbet was allowed to speak before the jury.

Nisbet has no legal training and his defense seemed haphazard at times. He cross-examined his own mother, who was called as a prosecution witness, but declined to ask a single question of the lead investigator in the case against him, South Portland Detective Sgt. Stephen Webster.

The jury found Nisbet guilty of robbery after a four-day trial. He is now serving a seven-year prison sentence at Bolduc Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison in Warren.

Nisbet spent nearly three years in the Cumberland County Jail in Portland before his trial on a charge of using a knife during a July 2011 holdup at the Mobil Mart on Main Street in South Portland.

Before trial, each of his attorneys sought to withdraw after citing serious breakdowns in the attorney-client relationship. Nisbet said each of the lawyers had begun to work against him.

Warren ultimately ruled that Nisbet would have to represent himself after Nisbet allegedly threatened his last attorneys, Jon Gale and Neale Duffett, when they met with him in the jail on Feb. 26.

According to Gale’s and Duffett’s motion to the court seeking to withdraw, Nisbet told them “I don’t care if I get 15 years, when I get out, I will be outside your house with a high-powered BB gun and I will take your eye out.” Nisbet denies making the threat, but is not making that a point of contention in his appeal.

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

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