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Looking at the puzzling schoolgirl in court

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2000

This is one of those moments when I identify with every reader who says there are some stories that he wishes he didn't have to be subjected to.

I'm talking about the trial of Valessa Robinson.

But we are all rubberneckers at the core.

It's the act, not the girl, that draws you in. There is little doubt that Robinson participated to some degree in the murder of her mother, Vicki, in July 1998. The crime rivets you, because it was an attack on society's most fundamental, and beloved, authority figure.

The girl herself is another matter.

I've been trying to get my arms around Valessa Robinson. Get. Not put.

It's more accurate to say I am trying to get my arms around the idea of who she is, trying to find a reason to care about what happens to her when this week's trial ends.

The news coverage has made Valessa a celebrity fit for tabloid TV news shows.

When you get past the fact of her mother, stabbed and poked and stuffed lifeless into a garbage can and left in the woods to rot, if you can get past it, you do not have her daughter's behavior explained, made comprehensible. This is all you see: another dead-eyed kid who hangs out at the mall and thinks she'll eventually make it as the lead singer in some ear-splitting, head-banging band.

I tell myself my disdain for Valessa is defensive, a psychological dodge on my part, because the crime is so frightening.

Valessa must scare many parents who struggle with their own teenagers, kids who are in equal measure streetwise and immature.

But Valessa -- we call her that, as if we know her -- has provided so few moments when she behaves like other people, with their ordinary messy but full range of emotions. Now and then she has cried on camera, yes. She has been heard to wonder if her mother will ever visit her in jail, as if she is desperately searching for a way to deny what occurred.

But does she have any sense of responsibility? Any awareness that what she does can affect the lives of other people? Is she capable of honest remorse?

Was Valessa just the type to be easily led, or mentally ill, or the love-starved product of bad parenting, or evil, the way evil appears, suddenly and almost accidentally, in a Flannery O'Connor short story?

We can't trust what we see in court. Her public defender has made the expected move of dressing her up. Her long stringy hair is now a wavy schoolgirl bob. The irony is bitter, infuriating. She is in a skirt and sweater twin set, the costume of the "prep" Valessa complained her mother wanted her to be. She is dressed to take the part of the proper girl, as if that might save her.

It might, but it shouldn't.

She deserves no breaks because she is young and female. By this line of thinking, girls are presumed to be the type not to strike out at somebody else, but to hurt themselves, to be the victim, somehow innocent, the masochist, not the sadist.

But you could argue that Adam Davis and Jon Whispel, her co-defendants, ended up where they did because they were once victimized, too, until they got big enough and strong enough to do to others what was once done to them. Nobody has taken pity on them. They have been treated like men. Davis is on death row. Whispel got 25 years after striking a deal.

Valessa Robinson's lawyers are hoping that somehow -- the drugs she took, the fact of her age, her sex, her love for Adam Davis, the conflicts in the statements the three made -- the jury will be persuaded to make an excuse for their client, the schoolgirl.

An excuse would translate into a verdict of less than first-degree murder and a lesser penalty than life in prison. But that would not change the fact that it still would be an excuse.

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