Man Accused of Beating Priest Faces 15 Years in Prison
Rutkowski agrees to new attorney
By Brian Monroe FLORIDA TODAY
VIERA, Fla., -- Robert Rutkowski, accused of beating a Catholic Priest, acquired a new defense attorney -- known for his unorthodox antics and trial tenacity -- in a hearing Monday.
Prosecutors said the 36-year-old Merritt Island man attacked Father Sean Heslin in February, leaving the 59-year-old clergyman hospitalized for weeks and unable to speak.
Heslin shepherds Our Saviour Catholic Church in Cocoa Beach.
Police arrested Rutkowski after witnesses said they saw him at Our Saviour asking to speak with a priest. Rutkowski is charged with felony aggravated battery with great harm and faces a 15-year prison sentence if convicted.
With the seriousness of the crime and publicity surrounding the case, Rutkowski's family sought out attorney Dan Ciener, a veteran trial specialist with experience in violent beating, murder and rape cases.
Tony Hernandez, who represented Rutkowski after public defenders were forced to drop him because of a conflict of interest, said the change is in the "best interest" of his client.
"I could have represented Rutkowski without a problem," Hernandez said. "But his family had asked for Dan, and their son later agreed."
Rutkowski had originally asked to represent himself.
His competence was in doubt to even go to trial after neighbors said they had heard the introverted Rutkowski at times screaming Bible verses from behind the door of his rented hotel room.
In late March, after three weeks of mental health examinations, a team of three doctors found Rutkowski mentally competent.
During the hearing, Rutkowski told Circuit Judge W. David Dugan he would "honor the wishes of his father and mother" and acquiesce to Ciener's representation.
Rutkowski, who has been held in the county jail since February on $100,000 bond, also is facing misdemeanor battery charges in a domestic violence case from late last year.
His next court appearance is a bond hearing Friday.
Ciener said he will try to lower the bond at the hearing because Rutkowski has "been in jail too long."
"I think police have the wrong guy," Ciener said. "It's really tragic what happened to the priest, but they need to arrest the right person."
Assistant State Attorney Thomas Brown, lead prosecutor in the case, said a change in defense attorneys doesn't change his trial strategy.
"We are happy Rutkowski will get the counsel of his choice," he said. "But we are looking forward to presenting this case to a jury with whomever Rutkowski would choose to represent him."