The trial: Day 8
The jury retired to deliberate shortly after 1 p.m. Six hours later, Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett sent the jurors to a hotel for the night. They will resume their deliberations this morning.
In her closing argument, Dee Ann Athan, the lead defense attorney, portrayed Valessa Robinson as a victim of Adam Davis and Jon Whispel. Athan described Whispel, who provided the most damning testimony at the trial, as a "liar."
Assistant state attorney Shirley Williams told the jurors there was a simple explanation for the murder of Vicki Robinson: Valessa Robinson wanted to be with Adam Davis, and would do anything to accomplish that.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Valessa will automatically be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The case at a glance
Vicki Robinson, a 49-year-old real estate agent and divorced mother of two teenagers, vanished from her home in the Tampa suburb of Carrollwood on June 27, 1998.
Police soon focused their inquiries on her 15-year-old daughter, Valessa, who had disappeared, too. Mrs. Robinson had been struggling with her rebellious daughter and was concerned about Valessa's new boyfriend, Adam Davis. Davis, 19, had just spent six months in jail for theft and burglary.
Six days after Mrs. Robinson's disappearance, Valessa and Davis, along with 19-year-old Jon Whispel, were arrested after a high-speed chase in Texas. The next day, Mrs. Robinson's body was found in woods a few miles from her home.
Whispel agreed to testify against his friends. He said that on the night of the murder, he, Valessa and Davis had taken LSD. As they sat in a Denny's talking about what to do, Valessa suddenly suggested they kill her mother. Inside the Robinson home, Davis attacked Mrs. Robinson and stabbed her, Whispel said, adding that at one point Valessa held her mother down.
Whispel pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Davis was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
Because Valessa was only 15 at the time of the murder, she did not face the death penalty.
Readers might wonder how the Times was able to recount what happened as Charles and Venessa Robinson drove to Tampa on Wednesday morning from their home in Manatee County. The explanation is simple: The Robinsons allowed a Times reporter to accompany them in their car.
The Times has provided expanded coverage of this case because it encompasses powerful themes that run through the lives of many families: the struggles between teenagers and parents, the stresses of divorce, the problems of drugs and teens, the efforts of single parents to start over.
Back issues of this series of special reports can be purchased at Times offices throughout Tampa Bay.
By SUE CARLTON, THOMAS FRENCH and ANNE HULL
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2000
On Wednesday, the day he hoped to get his daughter back, Chuck Robinson hurried through his morning routine. Inside their Manatee County home, he and his wife, Venessa, scanned the TV news, showered and dressed, grabbed some toast with peanut butter and blackberry jelly.
In the car, they started for the courthouse in Tampa.
"Oh, boy," Chuck said, sighing at the wheel.
They pushed toward the highway. Ahead, the eastern sky glowed orange.
In the passenger seat, his wife picked up a book of religious meditations. She had read aloud from it every morning on the way to trial. Now she opened to Page 112.
"Do not be afraid," she read. "Stand firm, and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today."
Chuck kept his eyes on the road. His face was haggard and drawn. His hands were fixed tightly to the steering wheel, as though he were afraid to let go.
Soon, the lawyers would make their closing arguments, and the case would be handed to the jury, and then they would know.
"We're gonna be done today," Chuck said. "Or else we're gonna continue on."
He turned the car north onto Interstate 275, toward Tampa. The miles passed. He spoke of Vicki Robinson and how hard it had been to listen to the testimony describing how much she suffered.
"Certainly nobody deserves to die like that," he said.
Still, Chuck believed that his ex-wife would not have wanted Valessa to suffer, either. Never, he said, would Vicki have wanted her daughter to spend the rest of her life behind bars.
Approaching the Sunshine Skyway, Chuck talked about Valessa as a little girl, her singing voice, her hopes of someday becoming a lawyer.
The car was rising to the top of the bridge, high above the bay. The sun was climbing to the right. The moon, still visible, was fading on the left. Below them, the water was a pure and perfect blue.
* * *
Tampa's criminal courthouse is a white slab of concrete hunkered down on two city blocks. People cursed the parking, and they cursed their problems as they passed through the courthouse metal detectors. They came dressed for justice in just about anything: Italian suits, pajama bottoms, satin gowns.
Each morning, the long terrazzo hallway on the first floor was a deafening wave of noise.
"I'm the victim in this case," one men yelled outside a courtroom. "He ain't the victim."
There was the daily chorus of malingerers and fakers and the wrongly done. There were ski tans and eel skin briefcases. There were jangling bailiff keys and glinting gold teeth and baby strollers. Hillsborough County State Attorney Harry Lee Coe glided through the chaos, his bony fingers wrapped around a Diet Coke. An interpreter told a deaf man in sign language that he faced five years in prison if convicted.
Valessa Robinson's trial was taking place on the third floor of the north tower, in Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett's courtroom. Wednesday morning, every possible place to sit or stand was occupied for closing arguments.
The lawyers looked dressed for a funeral. Their dark suits and dresses were a message to the jury. We know this is the most somber of days, they were saying. We respect the duty you face.
Valessa walked in wearing a pink cardigan, pleated black skirt, white tights and black Mary Jane shoes, her curls held back from her face with a barrette.
Shirley Williams stepped up to the lectern, professional, almost businesslike.
"There's no more serious crime in the eyes of the law than the deliberate taking of the life of another human being," the assistant state attorney told the jury. "That's why you're here."
She reminded them how Valessa had once told a police officer that she would be with boyfriend Adam Davis "no matter what it takes." She reminded them of testimony that Valessa told an acquaintance on the ride to visit Adam in jail, "I'm gonna kill my mom, and I'm gonna get Adam to help me."
"And lo and behold, less than a month later, Vicki Robinson is dead on her kitchen floor," Williams said.
She spoke of premeditation, and maybe just as important to the state's case, the principal theory. Under that legal concept, someone who intended for a crime to be committed and did or said something to "incite, cause, encourage, assist or advise" another person to do it is just as guilty. Hadn't Valessa been a principal player in Adam's crime, and therefore equally guilty?
"As if she did it with her own hands," Williams said.
* * *
Before facing the jury, Assistant Public Defender Dee Ann Athan turned to Valessa and took both her hands. They looked into each other's eyes.
From the box, the jurors watched her impassively. Around Athan, the defense team was making a quiet drama of setting up their 4-foot charts and blown-up photos to face the jury.
Athan began with an apology. She hoped she hadn't offended any of the jurors with her zeal during the trial.
"I am Valessa's voice in the courtroom," she said. "I don't want to let her down. I can't let her down."
Then she went after Adam Davis and Jon Whispel. Whispel, she said, lied to save himself from the electric chair. She pointed to a model of Valessa's bedroom and Vicki's kitchen. Looking at the angles of the walls, she said, Whispel could not possibly have seen the attack on Vicki from the vantage point of Valessa's bed.
"I suggest to you, ladies and gentlemen, that he wasn't in the bedroom," Athan said. "He was out here in the kitchen, sitting on Vicki Robinson's legs, where he now wants to put Valessa Robinson."
It was Davis, she said, who was illegally having sex with an underage girl, who had her marked as his own with an "A" tattoo on her hand, who had bewitched her with an $84 ring he bought at Wal-Mart with her dead mother's money.
Athan was pacing now, pointing her finger accusingly at the prosecution's table.
She spoke for more than an hour. She was still rolling when the court clerk discreetly tapped her pen on the table to let her know her time was nearly up.
"Valessa Robinson has been waiting almost two years for 12 people to do the right thing in this case," Athan said. "She didn't kill her mom. And she is not guilty."
She sat down.
The judge called a recess. Athan looked bleak, lost, as a fellow defense lawyer guided her out the back of the courtroom. In the hallway, Athan took off her glasses and cried.
* * *
Shirley Williams stood again. She would have the final word. If she was angry at the defense's attacks, she had it under control.
"I hope you don't expect," Williams said levelly, "that I'm going to walk over to the defense table and point my fingers in their faces and accuse them of putting on evidence that they don't believe is true. I'm not that rude -- "
All three defense attorneys were on their feet.
"Objection, your honor, improper comment," Athan said.
"Overruled," the judge said.
Williams moved on. Premeditation. An ongoing power struggle between mother and daughter. A plan to kill, with no more thought than a bunch of teenagers might give to deciding whether to go to the movies.
The night of June 27, 1998, Vicki Robinson and Jim Englert had shared a romantic dinner, and then Jim offered Davis and Whispel a ride home. Valessa's words to her mother that night were ominous, Williams said. "The boys aren't going home tonight."
Then Valessa snuck out, pedaling her bike to Denny's to meet the two boys, furious that her mother had made them leave, Williams said.
"The day had come," she told the jury.
Then came the scene in the kitchen described by Whispel: Valessa holding her mother down, hitting her, Davis sinking the needle into her neck. Davis stabbing her.
Then the prosecutor showed the jury an eerily silent police video of the interior of the Robinson home. A shot from Valessa's bedroom showed part of the kitchen, an indication that Whispel could have had the view he described.
Finally Williams told the jury where to look for the real reason Vicki Robinson died. It took a moment for the video to fill the screen, and then there was Valessa, hair streaming, being led to a police car.
Reporters shouted questions.
"You'll find out later," she said.
What about Adam, someone called as she was almost gone.
"I love Adam."
* * *
As Williams had hammered away, Valessa absorbed the blows by dropping her head, bowing her chin so low it seemed to pierce her chest.
She shook her head slightly, denying the words she was hearing from Williams.
But she was trapped.
And so were the others in the courtroom, who had never known the depth of Vicki Robinson's struggle and suffering, until the state's closing argument.
Valessa glanced to her left, at her family. There was a new face in the front row. It was her older sister. Michelle Robinson, 19, had avoided the trial, but on this last day she sat next to her father.
She heard a lawyer describing how her mother died, and by whose hands.
Michelle wept, and Valessa saw her weeping.
* * *
Finally, when the lawyers had finished, the judge turned to the jurors.
"You may now retire to consider your verdict."
The jurors filed out and entered a room where a bailiff would stand for however long it took. It was 1:06 p.m.
The waiting began.
Vicki Robinson's family took the elevator to Shirley Williams' fourth-floor office. They would wait here. The office became a vigil post, with half-eaten cookies on a desk and anxious wondering. Each time the phone rang, someone jumped. They were desperate for an ending.
The lead detective was there, so was Jim Englert. They talked about pension plans, jingled coins in their pockets and glanced at the clock.
Vicki's parents and two brothers, all from Michigan, waited in chairs.
One hour ticked by, then two, then three.
A visitor appeared. It was Valessa's sister, Michelle.
She had not seen her grandparents and uncles much since the murder. She lived with her father now. No matter how hard the two sides of the family tried to be civil and recognize their common loss, there was a divide.
And now Michelle was making an attempt to cross it.
"Michelle, come over here, honey, and sit by Grandma," Donna Klug said.
Michelle smiled and sat down. "You drove down from Michigan?" she asked.
Mrs. Klug patted her arm. "Well, Grandpa likes to drive," she said. "We take our time. Do you still have your mom's Cadillac?"
Michelle nodded. "Yeah, it's out there," she said, pointing to the street.
They talked about college and boyfriends. Michelle's relatives studied her. She looked like Vicki.
On the TV, the news came on.
Michelle, who had grown to hate the news coverage of her family's tragedy, shook her head at the TV. "What would they do without Valessa and Elian?" she said.
And then Michelle noticed a familiar photograph hanging in the prosecutors' office.
"Is that Lady?" Michelle asked incredulously. "They have a picture of Lady?"
Lady, a sheltie, was the Robinson family pet. According to Jon Whispel, the dog had growled as he and Adam Davis loaded Vicki's body into the van and began backing out of the garage.
Now the dog was a symbol for the prosecutors. They used the photo to keep them focused on the case. It reminded them every day to get justice for Vicki Robinson.
Michelle didn't know any of this. At the time of the murder, she had been visiting her father in St. Louis.
She looked at the photo wistfully. What had Lady seen?
* * *
Outside the courtroom, Vicki's friends clasped hands and prayed.
One was Carlton Huff. In the months before the trial, he had been to the jail several times to visit his friend's daughter, but the conversations had remained superficial. They had not talked about Vicki's murder. Now he wished they had.
One day, he and Valessa had been talking about spiritual matters. She told him she wanted her mother to be proud of her.
Later, Huff said, he realized what he should have said in reply. It would have been the right time to speak up, to tell Valessa how he truly felt. Looking back, he wished he had said:
"Then Valessa, do the right thing. Say what really happened."
* * *
Through the afternoon, Chuck Robinson moved restlessly around the courthouse.
Like Carlton Huff, Robinson had wanted Valessa to tell her side of the story. She had been eager to testify, he said. The day before, when it came time to decide, she had told her father that she wanted to explain what happened the night of the murder.
"She said, "I want to get on the stand. I want to tell people I didn't do it,' " Robinson said. "She has said that from the get-go."
Still, the risks had been deemed too great. Robinson said his daughter had struggled throughout the trial to hold herself together. How would she have reacted to cross-examination from the prosecutors?
"They would have eaten her up," Robinson said. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out."
If Valessa had fallen apart on cross, he said, she could have inadvertently talked her way into a life sentence.
"You're damned if you do," said Valessa's father, "and you're damned if you don't."
Robinson spoke at length about his frustrations with the state's case. He was still angry at the two detectives who had taped Valessa's statement in Texas, in the middle of the night, without a lawyer at her side. What Valessa told them, Robinson said, was something she made up to protect Adam Davis. Even the lead investigator, Robinson pointed out, has acknowledged that he does not believe Valessa stabbed her mother to death.
"That's not just because I'm her father," Robinson said. "That's fact."
Robinson also discussed his relationship with Valessa and the problems she'd had before the murder. Although some of Vicki's friends have said he rarely saw his daughters after the divorce, Robinson disputed it. In recent years, he said, Michelle and Valessa had come to see him approximately one weekend every month and a half or two months. He also said he used to call the girls at least once a week.
He was hesitant to criticize his ex-wife, but Robinson said Vicki had wanted too much to be a friend to her daughters. She'd had trouble setting boundaries and enforcing rules.
He was especially critical of Vicki's decision, a year before the murder, to take a two-week vacation to Michigan and leave Valessa alone at the house in Carrollwood. Yes, he said, Valessa had refused to come along and had even run away the night before the trip. Still, he believes that Vicki should have made her daughter join them or postponed the vacation.
"What Valessa did wasn't right. Somebody should have tanned her hide for pulling that stunt," he said. "But you don't go and leave a 14-year-old home alone."
Robinson said that when he first learned about the incident, he approached a lawyer and talked about fighting for custody of Michelle and Valessa. The lawyer advised him not to pursue it; there was a good chance he would not win.
Instead, Robinson said, he tried to work with Vicki, helping long-distance in any way he could. Vicki, he said, often minimized the problems with Valessa. She was struggling and had a hard time admitting how bad things were.
Wednesday, he said he wished he and his wife, Venessa, had pushed harder for the girls to come live with them.
Now it was too late. All Robinson could do was help his daughter fight for her freedom. He hoped she would be acquitted.
"We want her to walk out of there," he said. "Whether that's gonna happen or not . . . "
His voice trailed off.
* * *
At 3:38 p.m., the jurors knocked on the door to the jury room.
They had a note for the judge. On it were two questions.
Could they please have the bloody towels -- the ones used to mop up Vicki's blood -- removed from the jury room? The smell was unbearable.
Also, could they take a break outside for a smoke?
Padgett said yes on both counts.
In the hours that followed, there were several more requests for the judge. The jurors wanted some clarification on the theft charge, some extra copies of the indictment, more legal pads to write on.
Just after 6 p.m., they sent out yet another note. Padgett read it aloud for the lawyers.
If a person is determined to be a "principal," are they then to be considered guilty of the crime?
After consulting with the attorneys, Padgett summoned the jurors back to the courtroom. He told them he could give them no further explanation on this question, beyond what he'd already told them in his instructions. Quickly, he reread them the original instruction, then sent them back to continue their deliberations.
Chuck Robinson looked as though someone had punched him in the gut.
Robinson tried to make sense of it. Principal? They were thinking of Valessa as a principal to these crimes?
"That was not good news," he said outside the courtroom. "It doesn't mean anything yet, but it was not good news."
* * *
Finally, just after 7 p.m., Padgett called the jurors back into the courtroom. Deliberations would stop for the night, he announced.
The jury would be sequestered in a nearby hotel. Calls would be made to their homes so someone could bring them a toothbrush, deodorant, a change of clothes. If necessary, sheriff's deputies would drive them home so they could get whatever they needed.
"Get some sleep," said the judge. He would see them in the morning.
* * *
At the defense table, Valessa wrapped herself in Dee Ann Athan's arms.
She hugged her lawyer tightly, not letting go. Athan spoke a few words of comfort, stroked her client's hair.
Then the bailiffs took Valessa away, and the courtroom emptied. Chuck Robinson, along with Venessa and Michelle, made his way to the elevators.
Vicki Robinson's family made their exit, too.
"One more day," said Mrs. Klug.
* * *
The jury will resume its deliberations at 9 this morning.
-- Research: John Martin. Transcription: Michael Canning.
© Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.