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Punishment day

Twenty years in prison, the judge said. "Any questions about that?'' he asked Valessa. "No sir,'' she replied.

By SUE CARLTON, THOMAS FRENCH and ANNE HULL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 31, 2000


TAMPA -- At home on Memorial Day weekend, Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett sat in his beige recliner, a stack of letters in his hands. On TV, the Weather Channel was predicting clouds, but the judge had the sound muted.

The letters he read were a discordant chorus of voices. Each wanted justice for Valessa Robinson, convicted in his court of murdering her mother, Vicki. But each writer had a different vision of justice.

One letter came from a mother of seven who had followed the trial and was now pleading for a harsh sentence.

Please, for the sake of all teenagers -- and mothers, don't let them down, they need to know the consequences of their actions. Let it be known, for Vicki's sake.

And from the other side, Valessa's stepmother, just as steadfast in her belief:

Valessa should not spend another hour in jail much less be sent to an adult facility. She should be released to her father's custody and allowed to enter the therapy programs we have researched.

In a few days, Padgett would sentence the 17-year-old for her part in the murder. Valessa's former boyfriend already was on death row for attacking Vicki Robinson with a bleach-filled syringe and then a knife. A third defendant was serving 25 years.

Since the jury had rejected the charge of first-degree murder for Valessa and convicted her of third-degree, the judge had great latitude. He could place her in a juvenile facility until her 21st birthday. He could send her to adult prison.

In one of the letters, a relative who had known Valessa since birth had no trouble making up her mind.

Please your honor, don't let her off easy.

* * *

Valessa Robinson's father expected the worst.

"It's a done deal," Chuck Robinson was saying last weekend. "Everybody's made up their mind about what they're going to do."

Tuesday morning, Judge Padgett did exactly as Robinson predicted, sentencing Valessa as an adult instead of a juvenile. He gave her the maximum punishment of 20 years in prison: 15 for the count of third-degree murder and five more for stealing her mother's minivan.

"It's the court's decision that you be sentenced as an adult, the adult that you actually are," Padgett said. "A young adult perhaps, but an adult nevertheless."

The tension of the day came not from the sentence, but from the sweep and intensity of emotions that spilled forth during the 41/2-hour hearing at the Hillsborough County courthouse.

Valessa was brought into the courtroom in shackles and her orange jailhouse uniform. Donna Klug, Vicki's 75-year-old mother, sat in the front row, holding a pink rose in memory of her daughter.

Mrs. Klug had been preparing for this day since the verdict five weeks ago. After the trial, as her husband drove them home to Michigan, she sat in the back seat, scribbling notes on scraps of paper from her purse, thinking of points that Vicki's family should articulate in their letters to the judge.

Now, after months of measured silence, it was time for family and friends on both sides to speak. The defense went first, calling witnesses to address the judge on Valessa's behalf.

"Please state your name," Assistant Public Defender Dee Ann Athan asked one witness.

"Michelle Leigh Robinson," said the young woman.

"Are you related to Valessa Robinson?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"How?"

"I'm her sister."

"Are, were you related to Vicki Robinson?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"How?"

"I was her daughter."

Michelle Robinson had already lost one person she loved and was fighting not to lose another. She told the judge how much her mother loved Valessa and how important it was that Valessa get some help in the years ahead, before she left prison and returned to society.

"What do you think she will be like when she is finally released?" Michelle, 19, asked. "Let's start dealing with this now by getting Valessa the treatment she needs."

Michelle sighed.

"That was the point that I wanted to emphasize, your honor."

Others close to Valessa -- her father, her stepmother, her best friend since second grade -- echoed the sentiments. They talked about Valessa's love of writing, her hopes of someday going to college, her need for professional help to allow her to move forward with her life.

"I think she can be a productive citizen. I really believe that," said Chuck Robinson. "I believe that we have a person that obviously is way over her head."

Robinson also talked about the public perception that his daughter feels no remorse. That is simply not true, he said; his daughter has shed many tears.

"She's lost her mother, and she's grieving, too," he said. "It may be very difficult for this court to understand that."

* * *

As soon as we heard Vicki was missing, those friends who were closest to her suspected foul play and that Valessa was most definitely behind it. Valessa was not a young naive child who absently and ignorantly assisted in her mother's murder. She was a clever and manipulative young lady who knew full well the consequences of her actions.

-- Letter to Judge Padgett from Deborah Sartor-Englert, one of Vicki Robinson's best friends.

* * *

I believe in her innocence -- she was not involved in her mother's death.

-- Venessa Robinson, Valessa's stepmother.

* * *

We should have been able to attend each of our children's weddings, enjoy each other's grandchildren some day. . . . Why this family tragedy? I don't understand.

-- Kathy Garlow, Vicki Robinson's older sister.

* * *

The prosecution came back focused and brief.

Countering the defense's portrayal of Valessa as a vulnerable child, Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi read aloud several passages from Valessa's journal, revealing sexual activity and aggressive behavior long before Adam Davis arrived on the scene.

Throughout the trial, Vicki's family had shouldered into two rows of seats behind the prosecution. Now, Tom Klug, Vicki's younger brother, stood and walked alone to the podium.

"I want to talk about Vicki," Klug said.

He sketched out his sister's Michigan childhood of sports, church and Sunday dinners. "We did everything as a family. We piled into the station wagon."

It was like a home movie: Vicki playing the clarinet in high school band, Vicki sailing on a Michigan lake. The memories brought smiles from her friends in the courtroom. Some rummaged for tissues. Vicki had come back to life.

But the Kodak moments quickly turned to anger. Klug described how his sister's body had been dumped headfirst in a trash can and left for a week in 90-degree temperatures.

Klug, a 49-year-old lawyer, addressed suggestions that Vicki had not done enough to protect her daughter. He questioned Chuck Robinson's role in his daughter's life after his divorce from Vicki.

"The one that should have protected her was Chuck," Klug told the court. He mentioned one episode when Valessa proved too rebellious for her father during a summer visit, causing him to shiphis daughter back to Vicki after only a few days.

Klug accused the defense of putting on a "dog and pony show" during the trial. He worried about Valessa's ability to heal.

"I'm really concerned about rehabilitation when you have a public defender become personally involved," Klug said, his voice irritated. "The hugging, and saying, "I'm going to now be your surrogate mom.' What's going to happen five years from now, when they're busy on other cases?"

And then Klug turned to his right, toward the defense table. It was clear he was speaking to Athan.

"Well, public defender," he said, "I have news for you. You'll never replace my sister."

Vicki's former boss at Re/Max Realty gave a blistering summationof the crime: the utter waste of it.

"Valessa had too many chances, her mother had none," said Rebecca Eckley. "She could have taken the van and run away. But she chose not to."

Eckley, to whom Vicki had confided her problems with Valessa just weeks before the murder, read from two pages she had typed on her computer. "Valessa needs to pay to the full extent of the law. And she will still be out on the streets at a younger age than her mother was allowed to live."

"What was this event anyway?" Eckley asked the judge. "A control game gone bad? This was the brutal murder of an angel: a mom, a daughter, a sister, a friend; and, unlike the defense or the jury, we did know Vicki."

The true Valessa was knowable, too, Eckley said. She urged the judge:

"Look deep into this girl's eyes. The answer is clear."

* * *

Valessa was always a rebel. She was never happy unless everything was going exactly the way Valessa wanted. She could be the sweetest girl when things were going her way and then downright evil when they were not.

-- Letter to Judge Padgett from Jami M. Bowman, one of Vicki Robinson's nieces.

* * *

Valessa is not a criminal. She was allowed to have friendships with older men who easily influenced her, a young, vulnerable, easily influenced girl. Valessa is also a victim in this situation.

-- Charles Robinson, Valessa's father.

* * *

I think that it was Valessa's intent to be with Adam Davis, no matter what it took.

-- Hillsborough sheriff's Detective Jim Iverson.

* * *

Dee Ann Athan was incensed.

The moment the state was finished, she struck back at those who had criticized her passionate defense. She said that she was Valessa's advocate. Anyone who had a problem with that simply did not understand how a courtroom worked.

"I take offense at -- " she began.

"No, no," Padgett said, cutting her short. "We're here to sentence Ms. Robinson."

Athan turned to a 19-page sentencing memorandum she had already submitted to the judge. She began to quote from the memo's introduction.

Again, the judge interrupted.

"You're not going to read this, are you?" he said.

Across the courtroom, the benches filled with Vicki's supporters burst into laughter. Through two weeks of trial, they had watched Athan seize center stage, hugging Valessa in front of thecameras and calling her a "little girl" in front of the jury. Now they were obviously enjoying seeing her upbraided.

At the defense table, Athan tried to recover. Exasperated, she told the judge that she was not going to read the memo. Then she launched into a lengthy discourseduring which she recited paragraph after paragraph of the memo.

Athan continued for almost an hour. She said that she had advised Valessa to make no comment at the sentencing and that therefore she had to speak for her client. She reviewed Valessa's birth, her upbringing, her adolescent travails with sex and drugs.

On and on she went. She talked about how naive her client was, how immature, how easily she had been controlled and dominated by Adam Davis. She said that Valessa had reached out to Vicki's family after the murder, writing them letters, but that these attempts had been met with hostility. She talked about the anger Vicki's family feels toward Valessa, their desire to see her admit that she had held down her mother and helped Adam Davis and Jon Whispel kill her.

"They're not going to hear what they want to hear. They're just not," Athan said. "Because she didn't do those things."

Athan said she knew that many in the community smelled blood. They wanted Valessa to be sentenced harshly.

Her client, she said, did not deserve it.

"It would not be justice for Valessa," Athan said. "It would not be justice for society. But most of all, it would not be justice for Vicki Lyn Robinson."

Judge Padgett listened attentively throughout, his hands folded on the bench, his face betraying nothing. When Athan was done, he asked the defendant to stand.

Without any theatrics or speeches, he told Valessa that he was sentencing her as an adult. He was giving her a total of 20 years for the murder and the grand theft auto. Sentencing guidelines had called for a maximum of 18 years, but the judge went higher because of the cruelty of Vicki's death.

Valessa would get credit for the two years she has already spent in jail.

"Any questions about that?"

"No, sir," Valessa answered, softly.

That was it. The hearing had taken hours. But Padgett had required only 62 seconds to hand down his decision.

The bailiffs took Valessa to theback of the courtroom, fingerprinted her, then led her away in chains. Athan walked with her for a moment, smoothing her hair.

Tears in her eyes, Athan headed for the front row to hug Chuck Robinson and others who had spoken on Valessa's behalf. Athan tried to comfort them, talking about how they would appeal and keep fighting. She talked about the judge's sentence.

"We knew it was coming," she said. "That's what he wanted. He's sorry he can only give her 20."

Valessa was sent back to the Hillsborough County Jail. In a week or two, she will be transferred into the state prison system. Under the law, she must serve 85 percent of her 20-year sentence -- or 17 years. Since she has already been in jail for nearly two years, that leaves 15 years to serve.

Even if her appeal fails and she serves a complete sentence, she is likely to be out of prison at age 32.

The same age Vicki Robinson was when she first became a mother.

* * *

I will never forget how important it was for Vicki to start a family. That was the one thing in life that was most important to her.

What a great tragedy that bringing a life into this world is what cost Vicki hers.

-- Letter to Judge Padgett from Joelle Marie Bowman, one of Vicki Robinson's nieces.

-- Research: John Martin. Transcription: Michael Canning.

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