CONROE, Texas – Nearly 16 years after a boy was doused with gasoline and horribly burned, a judge is deciding whether the Southeast Texas man accused of committing the attack as a 13-year-old will now be tried as an adult.
Testimony and closing arguments concluded Wednesday following a three-day court hearing to determine if 28-year-old Don Willburn Collins will be tried as an adult for murder in the death of Robert Middleton.
Collins was 13 in 1998 when Middleton was set on fire on his eighth birthday near his home in Splendora, about 35 miles northeast of Houston. Middleton survived but died in 2011 at age 20 from skin cancer authorities say was caused by his injuries. He was burned over 99 percent of his body and endured years of physical therapy and surgeries.
State District Judge Kathleen Hamilton said she would issue her ruling Thursday morning on whether Collins' case can be moved from juvenile to adult court. Denying the transfer would end the case.
Authorities and Middleton's family members said Wednesday that they were confident Hamilton would rule that Collins should be tried as an adult.
"I know Robert would be happy that we're finally getting somewhere. ... We very badly want justice," said Middleton's mother, Colleen Middleton.
The new investigation into the attack was spurred in part by a deposition Robert Middleton gave two weeks before his death in which he for the first time accused Collins of sexually assaulting him before Middleton was set on fire.
But Collins' attorney, E. Tay Bond, argued Wednesday that the new evidence presented by prosecutors was known during the original investigation. Bond also said there is no physical evidence or eyewitnesses linking Collins to the burning or alleged sexual assault of Middleton.
"Time has not made their case better," Bond said.
Prosecutor Marc Brumberger said in his closing argument that during this week's hearing, authorities presented new evidence — including testimony from 25 witnesses — that was not known when Middleton was attacked in 1998.
That evidence included statements from Collins' cousin Heather White, who testified Collins had confessed to her that he and another boy had attacked Middleton to stop him from telling anyone that he had been molested by Collins, Brumberger said.
In a separate case, Collins was convicted of sexually assaulting another 8-year-old boy, now an adult who testified during this week's hearing that Collins had also threatened to burn him if he told anybody what happened.
Bond also argued that transferring the case to adult court would violate Collins' constitutional rights because state law in 1998 said a juvenile had to be at least 14 years old for a capital felony offense case to be transferred to adult court. The law was changed in 1999 to lower the age to 10.
Brumberger alleges the crime of murder did not take place until 2011, well after the law was changed.
Bond said prosecutors are unfairly trying to hold Collins accountable as an adult for consequences that happened in 2011 — Middleton's death — when it's Collins' conduct in 1998, when he was a juvenile, that "determines when you should be held accountable."
"Everybody in the community wants to hold somebody accountable for what happened to Robbie Middleton. Nobody wants to participate in a proceeding where rights are violated," Bond said.
Collins, who is being held on $1 million bond, briefly took the witness stand earlier Wednesday, saying he would not testify in his own defense.
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