Texas man convicted on murder charge; set victim on fire
(KHOU.COM) GALVESTON, Texas – Seventeen years after Robbie Middleton was doused with gasoline and set on fire, a Galveston jury has convicted Don Collins of capital murder in his death.
Prosecutors say Collins, who was only 13 at the time, attacked Middleton, then 8, in an attempt to silence him after sexually assaulting him two weeks earlier.
Middleton survived the attack despite suffering burns over 99 percent of his body.
After enduring more than 150 surgeries and years of agonizing physical therapy at the Shriners Burn Center, Middleton contracted a form of cancer linked to his skin grafts and died when he was 20 years old.
Prosecutors – who described the defendant as “a child rapist, a murderer and a monster” — argued the cancer was caused by the skin grafts caused by the burns inflicted by Collins.
Jurors saw part of a video deposition in which the severely burned Middleton, speaking from his deathbed 17 days before he died, recounted how Collins had raped him and later set him on fire. They were also shown an interview conducted by a KHOU 11 News photographer with Collins at the scene of the attack. He offered suspiciously specific details of the crime and admitted he had been playing with fire.
In the courtroom, Collins, now 29, paid little attention to the video showing Middleton on his deathbed, sitting with his back turned to the projection screen and reading a newspaper as the dying burn victim described the attacks.
Although Collins was charged with the crime in 1998, the case didn’t go to trial because prosecutors said their case wasn’t strong enough to win a conviction. After Middleton’s death in 2011 was ruled a homicide, prosecutors filed capital murder charges against Collins.
“Today, that little boy gets to hit back,” said Rob Freyer, the lead prosecutor in the case, during his closing argument.
Defense attorneys argued against trying Collins as an adult for a crime he committed when he was 13 years old. At the time, the maximum age for adult certification was 14, but in 1999 the state of Texas lowered that age to 10. Prosecutors argued that because Middleton died in 2011, the lower certification age applied to Collins.
“It’s absolutely unconstitutional, in our opinion,” said E. Tay Bond, Collins’ lawyer. “We made our arguments. The judge disagreed. And it’ll be the number one issue on appeal.”
The defense emphasized the victim named a number of suspects as his attacker. But his mother dismissed those allegations, saying her son was so delirious in the months after the attack he blamed his burns on everything from neighborhood dogs to his grandmother’s coffee. After he became lucid, she said, he consistently blamed the crime on Collins.
Bond argued there were no eyewitnesses to the crime and no physical evidence linking his client to the crime.
The prosecution’s case was bolstered by a number of witnesses who said they heard Collins boast about setting Middleton on fire, sometimes to intimidate other boys at a juvenile detention center. One of those witnesses testified Collins, a convicted sex offender, had raped him when he was 8 years old, then threatened to set him on fire if he reported the assault.
Collins, already jailed for failing to register as a sex offender, could face up to 40 years in prison. Defense attorneys believe the fact that Collins was tried as an adult gives them strong grounds for an appeal.
State District Judge Kathleen Hamilton moved the Montgomery County trial to Galveston because of pretrial publicity.