The controversy surrounding Jim Robinson would not die. Phil Weidner wouldn’t let it. Instead, he called him in as a so-called “defense witness.” His true identity was still at issue and making him a liar moved his identification of John Peel into the same realm. In the end, a 1979 car arson in Arizona loomed large.
My Name Is Jim
“My name is Jim Robinson,” the witness insisted from the witness stand. But then he hedged. “My true name on my birth certificate is Kenneth Harvey Robertson.”
Weidner already knew as much — and more. He had met with Robinson the previous evening in an interview also attended by Robinson’s attorney, Trish Collins, and Mary Anne Henry. All his sordid little secrets had finally come to light. Now it was time for Weidner to cash in on that knowledge. But Robinson was determined to split hairs, and continually debated with the attorney over the meaning of the legal terms Weidner threw his way.
“Did you plead guilty to a felony?” Weidner asked.
“I pled guilty to a charge,” Robinson replied.
“You’re a convicted arsonist, aren’t you?” Weidner insisted.
“I signed a plea bargain,” the witness shot back.
“You committed arson, didn’t you?” the defense attorney responded.
“I burned a car, Mr. Weidner.”
“Did you or did you not commit arson?” the defense attorney wanted to know.
“I don’t know what the terminology would be for it,” Robinson said.
“Well,” Weidner asked, “do you deny that you were convicted for arson?”
“I wasn’t convicted,” Robinson repeated. “I signed a plea bargain.”
Escape or Walk-Away
When Weidner turned to other topics, he got much the same response. What Peel’s attorney referred to as an “escape charge,” Robinson preferred to call a “walk-away.” When Weidner asked if Robinson had changed his name “to avoid being captured,” Robinson responded by saying, “I changed it because I wanted to forget my past.” When Weidner asked if he was using his dead mother’s Social Security number, Robinson replied, “It’s part of the number.” And when Weidner referred to him as “Kenneth,” Robinson replied, “I think you know what my name is, Mr. Weidner.”
Weidner also found himself frustrated when he tried to corner Robinson on other aspects of his criminal exposure. He tried to get him to admit that Mary Anne Henry knew his true name before he testified about John Peel’s identity as the gasoline buyer. Getting that admission was key to Weidner’s contention that Robinson was playing “Let’s Make a Deal.”
The witness spurned him, saying, “I don’t believe Mrs. Henry knew anything about my true name until the same time you knew it last night in the interview.”
Weidner kept pressing, insisting that Henry also knew Robinson had an escape charge pending when she went before Judge Schulz and cleared the way for Robinson to testify under his alias. That question managed to raise Henry’s blood-pressure, if nothing else. She angrily objected, noting that “the Court and Mr. Weidner knows I did not know any of this when I went to the Court.”
Judge Schulz, sensing trouble, issued a stern admonition. “I’ve warned you not to get into this, ladies and gentlemen,” he reminded both parties. Weidner requested a meeting in chambers. Schulz said yes.
On their return to the courtroom, Peel’s attorney raised the specter that Robinson faced up to two and a half years in prison for walking away from the work-release program. Robinson minimized the risk, saying that the most he would serve was “in the neighborhood of five months, six months.” Weidner wanted to know who told him he faced so little time — and found himself thwarted by Robinson’s claims of attorney-client privilege. He immediately moved to strike Robinson’s testimony.
Once again, emotions erupted. Mary Anne Henry sputtered an objection, her words twisted with anger. Judge Schulz caught her up short, saying, “If I want argument, I’ll ask for it. Now sit down.” The judge also managed to announce that the motion to strike Robinson’s testimony was denied. Taking advantage of the emotional storm he had helped create, Weidner calmly suggested that they take a recess. “I think we’ve been in session quite awhile,” he noted, “and tensions are quite apparent in the courtroom.”
Weidner had, by this point, not only created the maelstrom, but had used it to his advantage. Jim Robinson was in retreat.
Excerpts from the unpublished original manuscript, “Sailor Take Warning,” by Leland E. Hale. That manuscript, started in 1992 and based on court records from the Alaska State Archive, served as the basis for “What Happened in Craig.”
Copyright Leland E. Hale (2020). All rights reserved.