CBS devotes 48 Hours to the Valessa Robinson case. The teen declares her devotion to mom but criticizes her parenting.
By THOMAS FRENCH and SUE CARLTON
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 12, 2000
TAMPA -- On tonight's edition of 48 Hours, Valessa Robinson breaks her silence.
The hourlong news show, airing at 8 on CBS, is devoted entirely to the case of the 17-year-old Tampa girl convicted of third-degree murder this April in the stabbing death of her mother, Vicki Robinson. The show contains no factual revelations about the case, but it does give a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Valessa while she was on trial. And it offers a rare opportunity to hear the young defendant in her own voice.
She speaks carefully, tearfully, and under the watchful eye of her lawyer. But she does speak.
"Valessa," asks CBS correspondent Peter Van Sant. "Did you murder your mother?"
"No, I did not," she says. "I did not do this."
From the start, Valessa's lawyers have shielded her from any questions that might probe too deeply into her alleged role in her mother's murder. Valessa did not testify at her trial, thereby avoiding cross-examination by the state. In addition, her attorneys refused virtually every media request for interviews.
The most notable exception was with 48 Hours. Knowing the report would not air until long after the verdict, the defense attorneys gave CBS extensive access to their client.
Not surprisingly, Valessa's viewpoint dominates the hour. In footage taped before, during and after the trial, she is shown in her bright orange jailhouse uniform, talking inside the Hillsborough County Jail and courthouse. She calls former boyfriend Adam Davis "the devil," offers advice to parents of out-of-control teenagers and talks about how much she misses her mother.
"I wish I could see her right now and give her a big hug and say, "I love you, Mom.' I wish I could do that," she says. "But I can't."
Though she declares her devotion to her mother, Valessa criticizes her parenting.
"What do you wish your mother had done differently in raising you?" Van Sant asks.
"I wish that she had disciplined me more," Valessa answers. "I wish she had laid down the rules, told me, you know, this is what you can do, this is what you can't do. I needed that discipline."
Tonight's show is based on more than a year of research. Why did 48 Hours think the story deserved that much time?
"We feel like it raises really important questions and issues that all parents and teenagers face," senior producer Katie Boyle said Wednesday during a phone interview. "And we think it's something that parents and their teenagers should watch together, because there's a lot of lessons to be learned from what happened."
The report gives an overview of the case, from Vicki Robinson's murder in June 1998 to Valessa's sentencing this past May. It includes interviews with Vicki's friends and family, Valessa's father and sister, and the Texas sheriff who arrested Valessa and two of her friends after a dramatic chase on Interstate 10. One of the young men taken into custody that day -- Jon Whispel, who eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 25 years in prison -- is also interviewed. The other -- Adam Davis, Valessa's former boyfriend, who was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death -- is not.
Throughout the hour, though, the focus is on Valessa. She is shown singing a hymn in a cell, modeling a new outfit for court, waiting anxiously during jury deliberations.
For all the access granted to CBS, there were limits on where the show was allowed to venture. According to Boyle, Valessa's lawyers did not permit 48 Hours to press their client for a detailed account of the night of her mother's murder.
"We were not able to ask Valessa some questions about exactly what happened that night," Boyle said. "She could not take us through the events of that night. We could only ask her yes-or-no questions: Did you kill your mother? Did you sit on her legs?"
CBS interviewed Valessa several times. According to Boyle, Dee Ann Athan -- Valessa's lead attorney -- was in the room, listening to the questions and instructing Valessa when to keep quiet.
"Dee Ann interrupted several times to say, "You can't answer that question, Valessa.' "
Athan, in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, said she was being careful and looking ahead to the possibility of another trial if Valessa's case is reversed on appeal. She said she did limit some questions.
"I would say, "We're not going there,' " Athan said. "And they didn't press it."
Valessa's statements on the show come across as emotional but vague. Instead of describing what she did or did not do, Valessa defends herself with generalities.
"The public thinks I'm some kind of devil child," she says. "They hate me. They think I should die. They think I'm like some kind of horrible person who hurt her mom, who doesn't care... . I could never hurt my mother. Never."
Van Sant stares her in the eye.
"On your mother's memory, on everything you hold precious," he says, "are you telling me you are innocent?"
"I am," she says. "I didn't do this. I didn't have a part in this."
After the trial, Valessa was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Since June, she has been at the Lowell Correctional Institution, just north of Ocala. The state's oldest women's prison, Lowell also houses pregnant convicts and the youngest female offenders, age 14 and up. The prison holds more than 700 inmates.
According to the Department of Corrections, Valessa has been taking classes in drafting and architecture.
Vicki Robinson's friends and family are continuing their efforts for a foundation to help parents of troubled children. The Vicki Lyn Robinson Foundation has a Web site, at vickirobinson.com. The foundation also can be reached at P.O. Box 262691, Tampa, FL 33685-2691.
- Times staff writer Sue Carlton can be contacted at (813) 226-3346 or email@example.com. Thomas French is at (727) 893-8486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For special coverage of the Robinson case, visit http://www.sptimes.com/News/webspecials/robinsonmurder/