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Monday, August 1, 2016

The Don Willburn Collins Murder Case: Robert Middleton's Long, Painful Death

     Robert Middleton, on June 28, 1998, turned eight. Early in the evening of his birthday, his 13-year-old neighbor, Don Willburn Collins, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire. Robert survived the attack, but suffered third-degee burns over most of his body. The crime took place in Splendora, Texas, a small town in the Houston metropolitan area.

     Collins confessed to the police, was arrested, and spent several months in juvenile detention. He was not, however, prosecuted as a juvenile or an adult for the assault. According to the Montgomery County prosecutor in charge of the investigation, the state did not have enough evidence against Collins to go forward with the case. As a result, the authorities had no choice but to release the suspect. (Collins had taken back his confession and there were procedural problems associated with the investigation.)

     Over the years, Robert Middleton underwent 100 painful surgeries and many skin grafts that still left him horribly disfigured. In 2011, after being diagnosed with skin cancer, Robert, in a videotaped deposition given shortly before his death at the age of 23, revealed that two weeks before the arson-assault, Don Collins had sexually molested him. Collins had torched the boy to prevent him from reporting the rape.

     The medical examiner, finding that Middleton's cancer was caused by his burns, ruled his death a homicide. Following this cause and manner of death determination, detectives with the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office conducted a seven-month cold-case investigation into the 1998 sexual molestation and subsequent arson.

     Three years after setting Robert Middleton on fire, a jury found Collins guilty of sexually molesting another 8-year-old boy. At the time of that rape, Collins was fifteen. For that offense he spent four years in juvenile detention. The assault took place in San Jacinto County, Texas.

     In 2012, Robert Middleton's parents won a $150 million wrongful death suit against Collins. Because the man who had set fire to their son was homeless, the plaintiffs knew they would never collect the civil judgment.

     A Montgomery county judge, in 2013, transferred the Collins/Middleton case from juvenile to adult court after the district attorney charged Collins with felony-murder in connection with Middleton's delayed death. Under the felony-murder doctrine, a person who commits a felony is culpable for any death that occurs in the commission of that crime. In the Collins case, the underlying felony was sexual assault. While the sexual crime didn't cause Middleton's death, it lead to the arson that in turn caused the cancer that killed the victim. (The arson-assault wouldn't work as the underlying felony because the statute of limitations on that offense had run out. The sexual assault, however, wasn't reported until 2011.)

     In terms of the law, the prosecution in the Collins case faced a felony-murder causation problem. The prosecutor had to directly link the arson to the sexual attack. There was also the passage of time between the rape and the victim's cancer death. In the old days before crimes were codified, there was a common law principal related to criminal homicide called the year and a day rule. If the victim of an assault died a year and one day after the attack, too much time had passed to allow a murder charge.

     Collin's attorney challenged the transfer of his client's case into adult court. In 1998, under Texas law, a person under the age of 14 could not be charged as an adult with a capital offense. Collins was 13 when he allegedly raped then set fire to the victim. (In 1999, state legislators dropped the age to ten.)

     In October 2014, State District Judge Kathleen Hamilton approved a request by Collins' attorneys to move the murder trial out of Montgomery County. E. Tay Bond, one of the defendant's lawyers, had argued that the intense publicity the case received would make it difficult for his client to get a fair trial locally. Mr. Bond said, "I think the degree of shock as to what happened to Robbie Middleton has created a fervor in the community where people have decided that Don Collins is in fact guilty of something. They would convict him just based on emotion instead of an objective review of the evidence or lack thereof in the case."

     On January 10, 2015, Judge Hamilton heard arguments on the Collin's defense motion to suppress statements the defendant had made to police sixteen years earlier regarding setting the victim on fire. Two days after the oral arguments, the judge decided that because the interview room had not been approved by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department Board, she had no choice but to exclude this evidence from the prosecution's case. Judge Hamilton noted, however that "the officers involved in the 1988 statements had not acted in bad faith." But because Texas law did not provide for good-faith exceptions to the rules in the Family Code, the judge's hands were tied.

     In looking for evidence against the defendant, detectives questioned a man who had served jail time in juvenile detention with Collins who claimed that Collins had threatened to burn him the way he had set fire to Robert Middleton.

     On February 4, 2015, in a Galveston, Texas courtroom, Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Kelly Blackburn, in his opening statement to the jury, made up of six men and six women, said, "Our case is based on the testimony of adults who came forward and can tell you what the defendant did when he and Robbie Middleton were children. Witnesses will tell you that he poured gasoline on Robbie Middleton in 1998 and set him on fire."

     Defense attorney Tay Bond told the jurors they should not expect the prosecution to present eyewitnesses to this crime because there weren't any.

     Dr. David Herndon, a burn surgeon and chief of staff at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Galveston took the stand as the prosecution's first witness. He said the burns the victim had suffered had eaten through his fat tissue into his muscle. The doctor said Middleton's burns were among the worst he had ever seen. For surviving 13 years, the doctor said he considered Middleton a "miracle."

     Dr. Herndon was followed to the stand by three physicians who testified that the cancer that eventually killed the victim had been caused by his burns.

     Over the next several days, prosecutor Blackburn put on witnesses who testified that Collins had bragged to them about what he had done to Robbie Middleton. One of these witnesses, an inmate at a juvenile detention center who served time with Collins, said the defendant had raped him then threatened to burn him the way he had set fire to the Middleton boy.

     Defense attorney Bond, in his closing remarks to the jury, again stressed the fact there were no eyewitnesses to the crime or physical evidence linking his client to Middleton's burning.

     Prosecutor Blackburn, in his closing statement, called the defendant a "monster" and a "child rapist."

     On February 9, 2015, the jury in Galveston, Texas found Don Collins guilty of capital murder. Following the verdict, attorney Bond promised to appeal the conviction on grounds that trying Collins as an adult for a crime committed when he was thirteen was unconstitutional.

     Judge Blackburn sentenced Collins to forty years in prison.



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