Appeals Court Affirms Conviction of Man Who Wouldn't Attend Trial

Actions of 'Sovereign Citizen' caused judge to declare him a disruptive defendant

, Daily Report


Judge Charles Pannell tried a case without the defendant present.
Judge Charles Pannell tried a case without the defendant present.

A federal appellate court in Atlanta has affirmed the conviction of a bank robber who refused to attend his own trial after embracing a fringe political movement known as "sovereign citizenry."

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the bank robbery conviction of Ronn Darnell Sterling, finding that he was so disruptive that he had waived his right to be present at his trial last year. Sterling had refused to leave his cell, claiming he "wanted nothing to do with" the trial, and repeated "nonsensical phrases" in response to both questions and warnings from the trial judge on the trial's opening day, according to the panel.

Sterling's trial in January 2012 was not the first time that a federal judge in the Northern District of Georgia has tried a defendant who refused to come to court because he was a "sovereign citizen." In June 2011, U.S. District Chief Judge Julie Carnes—now a prospective candidate for an open seat on the Eleventh Circuit—tried another self-proclaimed sovereign citizen in absentia after he battled with marshals in his cell to keep from attending his bank fraud trial.

In a 56-page ruling in which she chronicled defendant Jean-Daniel Perkins' violent, disruptive behavior in great detail, Carnes laid out her reasons for putting Perkins on trial in absentia after he refused to leave his cell and threatened to harm anyone who tried to force him.

"These issues involve more than just abstract principles," Carnes wrote. "A blow-by-blow description serves to demonstrate how much of a district judge's scarce time and energy is gobbled up by these obstructionist tactics and how difficult it is to figure out, as a practical matter, how one can proceed in order to actually have a trial (and preferably one where no one gets injured)." Perkins' appeal of his conviction and Carnes' ruling denying him a new trial are still pending in the Eleventh Circuit.

Atlanta attorney Jay Strongwater, who has defended sovereign citizens who have refused to pay federal income taxes, told the Daily Report in August that other judges may have threatened to remove unruly defendants and let them view their trials by closed-circuit television. But he believes Carnes' trial of Perkins may have been the first in Georgia's Northern District in which a judge made good on the threat.

Seven months later, U.S. District Senior Judge Charles Pannell Jr. has followed Carnes' lead, trying Sterling in absentia when Sterling, like Perkins, also claimed to be a sovereign citizen and refused to leave his cell to attend his trial.

The appellate ruling, handed down Nov. 21, affirmed Pannell's decision to let the trial go forward without the defendant present and his determination that Sterling, through his disruptive behavior, had waived his right to appear. The appellate panel—Judge William Pryor, Senior Judge R. Lanier Anderson III, and Jane A. Restani, a judge with the U.S. Court of International Trade—expanded on earlier rulings involving the trials of defendants in absentia who were disruptive, had refused to leave their cells, or had simply failed to show up.

Citing a 2001 Eleventh Circuit ruling (U.S. v. Bradford, 237 F.3d 1306), Restani, writing for the panel, said that because Sterling's absence was the result of his own decision not to attend court once the trial began, the trial judge was "under no obligation" to force him to do so.

Sterling's attorney, Jonesboro lawyer Vernon Smith, could not be reached for comment. Federal prosecutors would not discuss the case.

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