Neil Hampton Robbins, 34, convicted of Capital Murder of a person under six years of age is getting a second chance 11 years later, thanks to the prosecution’s key witness in a case that will likely be discussed in and outside of the courtroom for many years to come.
Ironically, his family also has ties to the Clarence Brandley case, one of the state’s most infamous cases of wrongful conviction.
Robbins was convicted of killing Tristin Rivet, his girlfriend’s 17-month-old daughter who died on May 2, 1998. In February 1999, he was sentenced to life in prison.
Friday morning, 410th state District Judge K. Michael Mayes decided to recommend that the state Court of Criminal Appeals set aside Robbins’ conviction and grant him a new trial. However, it would be up to the District Attorney’s Office to decide the next step and prosecutor Bill Delmore said no decision was made as of yet.
“We’d have to take a real close look at this case, obviously, to determine to wither it’s something we want to try again or whether we’re done,” Delmore said.
He did not know if there was medical evidence available proving the child’s death was a homicide, Delmore said.
The primary evidence used to convict Robbins in 1999 was an autopsy and expert testimony by Dr. Patricia Moore, then an associate Medical Examiner for Harris County, who testified that Rivet’s death was a homicide caused by compression asphyxia. Robbins’ subsequent appeal was shot down based on the same information.
The story might have ended there, but in May 2007, Moore was asked to reevaluate the case and she revised her findings, changing the child’s cause of death to “undetermined.”
Robbins’ attorney, Brian Wice, filed a motion for a new trial and then-District Attorney Mike McDougal was in agreement. However, the wheels of justice turn slowly and McDougal lost that position to now District Attorney Brett Ligon who did not support the motion.
The prosecution planned to replace the impact of Dr. Moore’s original findings with that of another forensic pathologist, Dr. Linda Norton, whom the county paid a little less than $24,000 to examine the case and render an opinion. According to Wice Norton found that Rivet was a homicide victim, but her death was caused by suffocation and not chest compression.
Four other experts, including Dr. Moore and Dr. Dwayne Wolfe, chief deputy medical examiner in Harris County, found the evidence to be inconclusive and explained their findings in a deposition.
The deposition count would have been four to one, but it was four undetermined and zero experts deposed who determined a cause of death in the Trivet case. By all accounts, Norton never made herself available for deposition which upset the prosecution, the defense, and the judge.
Wice referred to Norton as “exhibit A,” and that was the nicest thing he called her during his lengthy remarks.
“Dr. Norton, by her thoughts, words, and deeds she’s helped write her own condemnation as a card-carrying, dyed in the wool, no doubt about it, confirmed witness for hire, whose credibility in this court today is less than zero,” he said.
Wice also condemned Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace Edie Connelly for finding Norton and convincing the county to hire her.
Because of her refusal to be deposed, Wice said Norton’s opinion was irrelevant and should not factor into Mayes’ decision. Mayes agreed.
Wice cited Moore’s lack of experience and extremely large workload at the time of Trivet’s death as factors contributing to the testimony she no longer supports, along with an issue that has been raised before and will no doubt be raised again and again.
“She acknowledged during testimony she had been reprimanded because she had been a little too biased a little too quick to pull the trigger in favor of the prosecution,” Wice said.
Mayes made similar comments adding that her superiors had ultimately changed her findings in several cases involving the deaths of small children, and that “her level of inexperience at the time of trial and her bias at that time toward the state is now evident”
Delmore further stated Judge Connelly heard all of the evidence a couple of weeks ago and “she found that the death was a homicide resulting from intentional asphyxiation.”
“We believe Judge Connelly is a rational person, a rational finder of fact,” Delmore said.
The prosecutor said even in the absence of medical evidence, there was “plenty of non-medical evidence” that the child’s death was a homicide, citing three other incidents when she was injured while in Robbins’ care.
“The process was fair,” Delmore said.
Judge Mayes disagreed and granted the request for a recommendation.
As a Montgomery County Sheriff’s Deputy escorted Robbins to a waiting jail van he said only, “It was a long time coming.” Wice said he expects his client to be released, but it could take as long as a year. When Robbins was arrested, he was 23-years-old. He will turn 35 a week from Sunday.
Robbins’ older brother, Brandon, was ecstatic and somewhat surprised, though he said he always believed his brother would be exonerated eventually.
Niel and Brandon Robbins’ grandfather was local attorney George W. Morris, who was once County Attorney and was also a defense attorney who went head to head with Judge Mayes as a prosecutor.
Morris was the first attorney to represent Clarence Brandley, the black school janitor wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering a student. Brandley spent nine years on death row before a judge ruled his trial was unfair.
For Brandon, Friday was bitter-sweet, in part because his mother and grandmother were not there. Both died within the past three years.
Their mother died Dec. 31, 2008, but she has not had a proper funeral. Brandon had her cremated and has waited for his brother, who he says is almost the only family he has left. He also has a 14-year-old daughter who was two when her uncle went to prison and has prayed for him to be released every night.
Brandon said he never doubted his brother’s innocence and always believed somehow the truth would come out.
“My brother loved that baby,” Brandon said. “While his girlfriend was working at a topless bar, my brother always watched her and he was good to her.”
Brandon is upset about the time Neil lost, going to prison in his early twenties and coming out in his mid-thirties, and says he cannot believe what Dr. Moore’s mistake has done to his brother and to his family. Brandon also said he and Neil are very excited at the prospect of him coming home and hope it happens soon, but they know Friday was not the end of the process.