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Judge excludes 'horrific' autopsy photo as evidence

But the ruling could change in the case of Valessa Robinson, accused in the 1998 killing of her mother.

By SUE CARLTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2000


TAMPA -- A Tampa teenager accused of murdering her mother stuck her fingers in her ears and stared at her lap Monday, trying to shut out the grisly topic at hand.

Around her, attorneys in Valessa Robinson's first-degree murder case sparred over whether a jury should see a gruesome photo of her mother's body, decomposed after hot days inside a plastic garbage can.

The judge's answer: Probably not, but perhaps.

After a defense attorney argued that Vicki Robinson's body was too far gone for the picture to show precise evidence of a stab wound, Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett agreed to exclude that autopsy photo as evidence. The picture, which one veteran lawyer called "horrific," would do nothing but inflame the jury, Valessa's attorneys said.

However, the judge said his ruling could change depending on the trial testimony of Dr. Lee Miller, who performed the autopsy.

Miller did not testify at Monday's pretrial hearing. But in last year's trial of Valessa's boyfriend, Adam Davis, held before a different judge, Miller was allowed to use the photograph to show a jury where he believed Mrs. Robinson suffered the lethal stab to her neck.

Valessa, whose face has often been still and unreadable in court since her 1998 arrest, has looked increasingly emotional as her March 6 trial approaches. Last month, she appeared to weep as her taped confession was played in the courtroom, and Monday, she kept her ears covered throughout the testimony of a defense forensic pathologist. Her attorney, assistant public defender Dee Ann Athan, put a comforting arm around her.

Valessa, along with Davis and their friend Jon Whispel, both then 19, were charged with Mrs. Robinson's murder on the kitchen floor of her comfortable Carrollwood home in June 1998.

Caught driving her minivan in Texas, the three teens told detectives they were high on LSD when they carried out a plan to kill Mrs. Robinson, a devoted churchgoer and real estate agent with a sunny personality.

The divorced mother had been secretly making plans to put Valessa in a live-in school for troubled girls. Davis said he attacked Mrs. Robinson with a bleach-filled syringe and then a knife so the threesome could stay together.

Whispel said at one point, Valessa straddled her mother's body to help hold her down.

After their arrests, all three drew crude maps to Mrs. Robinson's body. Still wearing her peach nightgown and gold crucifix, she had been stuffed inside a plastic garbage can and dumped in the woods a few miles from her home.

Davis' lawyer Rick Terrana, a veteran of more than a dozen murder cases, called the photographs of Mrs. Robinson's unrecognizable face and body "horrific" and "absolutely the worst I've ever seen."

"They can't help but inflame the passions of a jury, just their graphic nature," Terrana said.

Juries are instructed not to consider what happened to a body after death. Defense attorneys question whether that's possible, especially in extreme cases.

Whispel, who pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder and is serving a 25-year sentence, is expected to be a significant witness against Valessa. Davis was found guilty last year and sentenced to death.

Pretrial testimony indicates that the effects of LSD and Davis' admission that he did the stabbing will be key in Valessa's defense.

Valessa, who cannot be sentenced to death because she was only 15 when she was arrested, faces life in prison if she is convicted as charged.

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