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Judge steps aside from Robinson case

Transferring the case to another judge could delay the Tampa teenager's murder trial.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 1999


TAMPA -- Hillsborough Circuit Judge Cynthia Holloway stepped aside from Valessa Robinson's first-degree murder case on Thursday after defense attorneys accused her of bias, a decision that could postpone the Feb. 14 trial.

Attorneys for Robinson, the Carrollwood teenager accused of killing her mother, filed a motion Monday asserting that Holloway already viewed their client as guilty. They pointed to statements she made Dec. 17 as she sentenced Robinson's boyfriend, Adam Davis, to death for his role in the killing.

Referring to Davis and Robinson, Holloway said, "between these two defendants, there is no significant difference in the level of culpability." The defense attorneys argued the statement created the impression that the judge couldn't hear Robinson's case with an open mind.

The case was transferred to Circuit Judge Diana Allen, who may be forced to delay the trial depending on what she has on her docket for February, said Hillsborough Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez.

"It won't speed things up," Alvarez said.

More and more, attorneys are asking Hillsborough judges to disqualify themselves from cases, said Alvarez, who called the trend disturbing.

When asked to step aside, judges cannot consider whether the allegations against them are true but only whether they would be legally sufficient to require them to get off the case if they were true, according to the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure. Most judges err on the side of caution and step aside to avoid appeals, a distinct possibility in murder cases.

Judges also are forbidden from explaining why they did or did not step aside, Alvarez said. The rules can leave the public the impression the judge did something wrong, he said.

"The allegations can be totally groundless, but still legally sufficient," he said. "It's an easy way to get a judge that you don't like off of a case."

It also can be an effective way for attorneys to buy time because so-called recusals often require postponing a case. Alvarez said he did not know if that was the intent in the Robinson case because he was unaware of the details. Robinson's attorneys could not be reached for comment.

"Speaking in generalities ... some attorneys will use it as a delay tactic," Alvarez said.

If attorneys want the second judge in a case to step aside, they must prove the merits of the allegations they level against that judge, not just raise the questions, Alvarez said.

"It's much harder the second time around," he said. "You only get one free bite at the apple."

Prosecutor Pam Bondi said she did not want to comment on a pending case.

Valessa Robinson told detectives she was tripping on LSD with Davis at a Denny's in July 1998 when they decided to kill her mother, Vicki Robinson, a divorced Carrollwood real estate agent. Mrs. Robinson's body was stuffed in a garbage can in some woods. Five days later, Davis, Valessa Robinson and Jon Whispel were caught in west Texas driving Mrs. Robinson's minivan.

Whispel accepted a plea deal for 25 years in prison in exchange for agreeing to testify against Davis and Robinson. A jury convicted Davis in November.

Regardless of when Robinson's trial begins, the new judge must decide several legal matters, including whether to let the jury hear Robinson's taped confession.

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