LAS VEGAS -- A former Las Vegas-area elected official endured searing questions from a state court judge but got the go-ahead Tuesday to represent himself at trial on a murder charge in the killing of a veteran investigative journalist.
“It’s always unwise to represent yourself in any matter, let alone a first-degree murder case,” Clark County District Court Judge Michelle Leavitt told Robert “Rob” Telles, a former Democratic county official accused of stabbing Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German to death last September.
"I understand, your honor,” Telles said.
Telles, 46, a lawyer since 2015, had his license to practice suspended after his arrest in German's slaying. He stood in court Tuesday in jail clothing with his arms shackled to his waist and a sheaf of papers in his hand. He remains jailed without bail.
“You’ve never done even a misdemeanor criminal trial?” the judge asked as she grilled Telles for more than 30 minutes about his crucial decision in a case that could get him life in prison without parole. Leavitt specializes in handling murder trials.
“No your honor,” Telles responded. His experience was in civil matters, he said, adding that he handled three jury trials.
Telles does not have to be a lawyer to represent himself. The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1975 that criminal defendants in state courts have a constitutional right to represent themselves.
“You understand that if you choose to represent yourself and you don’t get a result that you like, you can't say on appeal ‘I was bad at representing myself?' " Leavitt asked.
“I understand that,” Telles replied.
Telles recently told The Associated Press in a jail interview that he wanted to drop Damian Sheets, an attorney he hired in January, and find another lawyer to get his case to trial quicker than the Nov. 6 date currently set. Sheets was the third private attorney Telles hired since his arrest.
“I wish him the best in representing himself,” Sheets said after the judge's decision.
Leavitt on Tuesday did not change the trial date, and she made it clear she does not want Telles to ask later to let him hire another attorney.
“You're facing life without the possibility of parole,” the judge declared. “It is not a game. I will not allow you treat it as a game.”
Leavitt said she will decide later whether Telles qualifies for a court-appointed “standby” attorney to assist Telles and answer legal questions.
In his interview with AP, Telles maintained that he did not kill German. But he did not provide new evidence in his defense and did not say what he was doing the day police and prosecutors say German was attacked and killed in a side yard of German’s house. Telles said he wants to testify before a jury.
“And so, because I’m going to do that, I think that’s something that will come out as far as what I was doing," Telles told AP on Feb. 14. "But right now, I couldn’t answer that question.”
Telles lost his Democratic party primary in June, weeks after German wrote about “turmoil and internal dissension” in the office Telles headed.
German, 69, was widely respected for his tenacity and confidential contacts in 44 years reporting on organized crime, government corruption, political scandals and mass shootings — first at the Las Vegas Sun and then at the Review-Journal.
He was one of at least 67 news media workers killed worldwide in 2022, the highest number since 2018, according to a report in January by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Thirty-five of the known killings took place in just three countries: Ukraine, Mexico and Haiti. German was the only one in the U.S.
Last week, a television news reporter was shot and killed and a photographer was wounded, allegedly by a gunman who returned to the scene of an earlier slaying near Orlando, Florida. The local sheriff characterized the shootings as random acts of violence.
Telles' elected term as Clark County public administrator was cut short following his arrest less than a week after German’s death. The office handles dead people’s assets.
Police and prosecutors say evidence is strong that Telles killed German, including Telles’ DNA found beneath German’s fingernails.
Neighborhood video shows a man wearing an orange work shirt and extra-broad straw hat walking near German’s home and entering German’s yard. Police said they recovered cut-up pieces of a straw hat at Telles’ home the day he was arrested.
In the AP interview, Telles insisted evidence that police and prosecutors say was collected at his home and on German was “planted.”
“When it was, I cannot say,“ he said. “But I did not kill Mr. German.”
In addition to delays due to attorney changes, steps toward trial are on hold pending a ruling by the state Supreme Court on an appeal by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department of a judge’s order blocking homicide detectives from accessing digital records on computers and a cellphone seized from German’s home.
The Review-Journal argues that reviewing German’s files could improperly expose confidential information about stories German was working on, violating First Amendment protections and Nevada state law shielding reporters from revealing contacts and sources.
Police say that to complete the investigation in the case against Telles, they need to be thorough in the search for possible evidence.
Telles also is entitled under court rules of evidence to know if German had information that could clear Telles of the charge against him.