Defendant disparages judge, his lawyer
The trial of a Mt. Washington man accused of raping and strangling a prostitute and setting her body on fire got a rough start in Allegheny County court on Wednesday as the defendant called the judge a racist and tried to fire his defense attorney.
Nathan H. Williams, 30, initially asked Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning to postpone the trial in which he is charged with rape, homicide and abuse of a corpse in the August death of Elaina Davis, 57.
But after an hourlong discussion over whether Williams would keep his court-appointed attorney, Lisa Middleman, or represent himself, Manning took a recess until 1:30 p.m.
When Williams limped back into the courtroom — using crutches and wearing one Nike Air Jordan sneaker with his right foot bandaged over a jailhouse basketball injury — Middleman was by his side and will be as the trial continues.
“That is a very, very wise decision,” Manning told him.
Deputy District Attorney Mark V. Tranquilli called four witnesses, including a neighbor who saw two people fighting outside her window, and another who discovered Davis’ naked body outside his balcony shortly before noon on Aug. 28.
Pittsburgh police Sgt. Cristyn Zett, who was among the first officers to arrive at the scene, said she discovered the body in thick brush beside a vacant building.
“It was clear that she was deceased already,” Zett said.
Also called to the stand was Pittsburgh homicide Detective Harry Lutton, who said the pink shoelace found around Davis’ throat “was so tight it was embedded in her skin.”
Police said Williams’ DNA matched DNA found under Davis’ fingernails and elsewhere on her body and on the shoelace used to strangle her.
Williams, who has been in the Allegheny County Jail without bond since his arrest in November, surprised his defense attorney, prosecutors and Manning on Wednesday morning by asking to approach the bench moments after 12 jurors and two alternates — eight men and six women — were called into the courtroom.
Manning quickly ushered the jury out of the room and allowed Williams to speak.
“I’m being forced to go forward with this proceeding,” Williams told the judge. He repeatedly asked Manning to postpone the trial, but Manning refused.
Williams then “fired” Middleman and said he would represent himself because she refused to strike a juror who has a relationship with one of his arresting officers.
“We picked the jury. The jury is in the box. We’re going to trial,” Manning said.
Williams called Manning a racist and said he was going to send a letter to President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel to request a new judge. Williams is black, and Manning is white. Manning declined to recuse himself.
“Every trial is a forced trial. Sooner or later, it has a docket date, and sooner or later, it gets tried,” Manning said.
Tranquilli is expected to call seven more witnesses when the trial resumes on Thursday, including an arson investigator who inspected Davis’ burned clothing and a Pittsburgh police crime lab technician who discovered Williams’ DNA on Davis’ body.
Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or [email protected].