Man uses computer in court to testify that he was robbed Cerebral palsy patient types with helmet pointer

November 27, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County courtroom was dark and silent, but vivid testimony was offered yesterday, as a man used a computer, keyboard, screen and pointer to tell about being robbed in January.

John Edward Nolan, 38, testified from his wheelchair during hours of questioning. He told the court that a man he had seen once before stole his wallet, struck him and insulted him Jan. 21 in Towson.

Nolan, who has cerebral palsy and limited use of one hand, wore a blue helmet with silver duct tape around it and a metal, rubber-tipped pointer connected to the helmet's top.

Raising and lowering his head, he typed letters on a plastic-covered keyboard, forming words that showed up in large type on a screen in the darkened courtroom, to answer questions from the attorney for the suspect, Joseph C. Colwill.

Nolan always capitalized the first letter of each sentence, put appropriate punctuation at the end, and, if he made a typographical error, he would carefully correct it.

Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger, Baltimore County Assistant State's Attorney Mickey J. Norman and the defendant's lawyer, David B. Irwin, sat patiently in the courtroom reading his replies.

Many were a "Yes" or "No." But once, when Irwin inquired if Nolan thought the assailant had animosity toward people with disabilities, Nolan typed: "I am not a psychologist," which brought a grin to the face of his mother, sitting behind him in the jury box.

"The guy's extremely bright," said Norman of Nolan. "His vocabulary is wonderful. The only difference is, it just takes a longer time."

Nolan, who lives alone in the first block of Allegheny Ave., has become a regular around central Towson, using his electric wheelchair to attend midnight movies at Towson Commons General Cinema and for book-browsing trips at Borders Books & Music nearby.

According to testimony, on Jan. 21, about 2: 30 a.m., Nolan was returning from a midnight movie and a quick stop in a local bar when a man he'd seen in the bar but didn't know followed him on York Road, then snatched the control of his wheelchair and began running along side him.

The assailant grabbed Nolan's wallet -- which contained about $60 -- from the holder around his neck, and said to him, "What's it like to be a useless parasite?" He then punched Nolan twice in the face, and ran off, according to testimony.

Nolan reported the incident to police, but no arrest was made.

Four months later, April 8, Nolan was in Borders when he saw the man he says attacked him. He was able to communicate that to a cashier in the bookstore by pointing to words, letters and phrases printed on a board he carries with him, according to testimony.

When Baltimore County police arrived, Nolan described a brown-haired man who wore a cap with "S.C." on it who had just left the store.

Police left the store and quickly found Colwill, 22, who was still in the area. Colwill, whose address was not immediately available, was charged with robbery and assault and battery, according to prosecutors.

Free on $15,000 bail, he could face a 10-year sentence if convicted in the trial, which began Monday in Circuit Court.

Norman, the prosecutor, said it was the first time he had represented a crime victim who could not speak to him -- but that didn't pose a problem. "The quality of the information [Nolan supplied] is better than some witnesses' because he is so articulate," Norman said.

The trial is expected to conclude next week.

Pub Date: 11/27/96

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