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Judge to consider girl's confession


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 1999

TAMPA -- As the tape recorder rolled, she told detectives in a flat voice that she had done it all herself. She had held her mother down. She had stabbed her.

Inside a juvenile detention center in Texas in July 1998, 15-year-old Valessa Robinson gave that version of the vicious slaying of her mother, Vicki Robinson.

Now 16, Valessa could spend the rest of her life in prison if a jury decides she is guilty at her trial next year. But in a hearing today, Circuit Judge Cynthia Holloway is expected to decide whether that jury will get to hear Valessa's own version of what happened -- her taped confession of murder.

The issue -- whether a young suspect knowingly and intelligently gave up the right to remain silent when talking to police -- is one so topical that prosecutors hope it soon will be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in another local murder trial.

The questions raised in Valessa's case: Did she fully understand the rights she was giving up when she told her tale to detectives? Did the fact that she was ill or that she had no parent there play a part in her decision to talk?

Should her confession stand?

In the case, which has raised troubling questions about teenagers, drugs and violence, Valessa is accused in a plot to kill her mother, a devoted churchgoer with a sunny personality.

On June 27, 1998, Mrs. Robinson was attacked in her suburban kitchen, injected in the neck with a bleach-filled syringe and stabbed to death. Days later, Valessa, her boyfriend, Adam Davis, 19, and their friend Jon Whispel, 19, were arrested after a high-speed chase in Texas driving Mrs. Robinson's minivan.

Separately, all three confessed to Hillsborough detectives, who had flown to Texas to interview them. All three drew maps to where the body was hidden inside a garbage can in the woods. All three said they had taken LSD that night.

Davis and Whispel's versions essentially matched: Both said Davis choked Mrs. Robinson, injected her and stabbed her. Davis added that Valessa helped hold her mother down. Whispel later admitted he handed over the knife that was used.

But Valessa's version was markedly different. She did it all, she said; as she recalled, the boys never came out of the bedroom.

"From what I guess I could say, recall, since I was on acid, I remember I had stabbed her in her throat and it had released a lot of blood," she said on tape. "And she wasn't dead yet, and so I stabbed her again twice in her back."

She answered questions about the peach nightgown her mother wore and the position of the body on the tile floor, but halted the interview as they pressed her about Davis and Whispel being in another room.

Probably neither prosecutors nor police believe her confession. Officials publicly have put their faith in Davis' and Whispel's story, which implicates all three. Still, prosecutors presumably want the jury to hear Valessa's voice calmly describing the brutal stabbing of her mother, even if they plan to argue she was simply trying to take all the blame to spare her boyfriend.

Today, defense lawyers will try to convince the judge that Valessa was coerced, intimidated or deceived into talking to Hillsborough sheriff's detectives Jim Iverson and John Marsicano that night. They point to the case of Nathan Joe Ramirez, convicted in the 1995 Pasco murder of a 71-year-old widow who was raped and killed.

Ramirez confessed in a videotaped interview with two detectives. But this year, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a new trial and chastised police for "blatant" violations of his rights in getting that confession, saying police downplayed the significance of his right to remain silent. The state Attorney General's Office has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.

There are some similarities between the two cases.

Both Ramirez and Valessa talked to detectives and implicated themselves before they were given their Miranda warnings, which inform a person of the right to remain silent and to have an attorney present during police questioning. The warnings, familiar staples of TV police dramas, stem from a 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision that says any statement a suspect makes about his role in a crime must be voluntary, not coerced by police.

Before the tape recorder ever was turned on in the Texas jail, Valessa told the two officers her story, according to court records. She then was read her rights and signed a consent form. The tape recorder was turned on and she essentially repeated what she already had said, according to court records.

In today's court motion, Valessa's assistant public defender Dee Ann Athan charges that detectives created a "psychological "cat out of the bag' scenario" by getting her to talk, then reading her rights and asking her to repeat what she had already told them.

Neither Ramirez nor Valessa had a parent present. According to the defense motion, a sheriff's deputy in Tampa talked to Valessa's father, Charles Robinson, in Illinois, but told him only that his daughter had "been found." Her father gave permission for Valessa to be interviewed about her mother's disappearance, not knowing that Valessa was a murder suspect, defense lawyers charge.

LSD, expected to play a big part in Valessa's defense to murder, also may factor into today's decision. After her arrest in Texas, Valessa told jail officials she had taken LSD that day. She was interviewed by the detectives at least 10 hours after her arrest.

Athan is expected to put Dr. John Halpern, an LSD expert from Massachusetts, on the witness stand today to testify about Valessa's condition when she talked to detectives.

Also, Valessa was ill and in pain during the interview. She halted the question-and-answer session by saying she didn't want to talk anymore "because my stomach's really getting hurt" and was taken to the hospital and treated for a severe yeast infection, according to court records.

Whether or not the confession is excluded, prosecutors will put Whispel, now 20, on the stand to testify against her. Whispel, who already accepted a plea deal for 25 years in prison, was a strong witness against Davis, who was convicted and sentenced to death.

Valessa is too young to face the death penalty. Her trial is expected to begin on Valentine's Day.

-- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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