A District of Columbia Superior Court jury convicted Robert Dobyns in 2009 of fatally shooting his half-brother, Christopher Dobyns. Dobyns wants a new trial, arguing that prosecutors introduced a litany of prejudicial evidence, including testimony about his purportedly "Jekyll and Hyde" personality.
Dobyns was charged with luring his brother behind a then-vacant school in Northeast Washington and shooting him in the back of the head at point-blank range. After he was arrested, according to prosecutors, he wrote letters asking individuals to lie on his behalf and direct police toward other suspects.
He was found guilty of the murder charge and also of obstructing justice. A three-judge District of Columbia Court of Appeals panel heard arguments on his appeal this morning.
Dobyns' attorney, Christine Monta of the D.C. Public Defender Service, said two pieces of evidence introduced by prosecutors at trial were especially prejudicial. One witness, a girlfriend, had talked about Dobyns having a "dual personality," much like the main character in the Jekyll and Hyde story. The problem, Monta said, is this evidence had nothing to do with the case and was used by the government to help explain why Dobyns would suddenly murder his own half-brother "in cold blood."
The second piece of evidence in question was a letter Dobyns wrote to that same girlfriend seemingly threatening her because he didn't like the way she was speaking with him on the phone. Monta said that the letter, like the testimony about Dobyns' personality, had nothing to do with the case and was inflammatory character evidence.
Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby asked if Dobyns' appeal was an all-or-nothing proposition, where the court would have to find all of the evidence in question prejudicial to overturn the conviction. Monta said that the girlfriend's testimony and the letter on their own would be enough, but that Dobyns was arguing that the government's case was rife with other problematic evidence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Parikh Brown argued that the letter provided context for the government's theory that Dobyns manipulated people he knew to lie for him. Blackburne-Rigsby asked how it was relevant, especially since a number of these same people ended up giving damaging statements about Dobyns. Brown replied that to prove obstruction the government didn't need to show that Dobyns was successful, only that he tried.
On the issue of the dual-personality testimony, Brown said that the government never presented a "Jekyll and Hyde" theory. The government's theory was that Dobyns killed his half-brother after hearing that he may have molested Dobyns' daughter. That testimony was part of the witness' explanation about Dobyns being referred to as both "Rob" and "Robert." It didn't carry the force that Dobyns' was claiming, Brown said.
Blackburne-Rigsby asked about another piece of evidence Dobyns had claimed was prejudicial, a series of sexually explicit drawings he had included in a letter to another woman. In response to the judge's question about how that was relevant and not overtly prejudicial, Brown said that it supported the government's claim that Dobyns manipulated the people around him to make sure they remained loyal.
Judge John Fisher and Senior Judge Michael Farrell also heard the case.