A mother, a daughter, a murder

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Previous stories
Part 1: The Great Divide
Part 2: Mad Love
Part 3: Valessa in the Tower
Part 4: Before and After
Part 5: Opening Fire
Part 6: The Lost Boy
Part 7: Missing Persons
Part 8: The Girl in White
Part 9: Words Unspoken
Part 10: Judgment Day

The trial: Day 9

The jurors deliberated until shortly after 5 p.m. when they sent the judge a note saying they were "deadlocked and the foreman is claustrophobic and needs to get out of the room for a while." Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett sent the jury back to a local hotel for the night. Deliberations will resume this morning.

The jury had no questions for the judge during the day. The jury now has spent more than 14 hours debating the case.

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.

Editor's note

The details in today's story about the cell where Valessa Robinson is being held and the room where she talked with her attorneys were provided by those attorneys.

The account of Jon Whispel's private meeting Thursday with Vicki Robinson's family was provided by family members and attorneys.

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.

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Trial: The vigil

The vigil

Valessa waits. The prosecutors wait. So do the defense attorneys, families and friends. What is happening in the jury room?


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2000

[Times photo: Tony Lopez]
Valessa Robinson shares a smile with Assistant Public Defender Dee Ann Athan on Thursday shortly before the the jury is sequestered for a second night.
TAMPA -- In a holding cell behind the courtroom, Valessa Robinson sat alone.

It was just after 8 a.m. Thursday. In a little while, the jurors would return and resume their deliberations to determine whether the 17-year-old Carrollwood girl would spend the rest of her life in prison.

The cell where Valessa waited was small and cold and reeking. There was nothing in the room except a concrete bench and a metal toilet that needed cleaning after being used by dozens of inmates. The walls were a riot of graffiti: assorted gang symbols, a carefully rendered drawing of a skull and crossbones, messages left behind by others.

    El Toro.
    God bless us.
    Lonnie loves Laura.
    F--- you very much.

Valessa had almost no choice but to stare at the walls and read the scratchings. She was not allowed to bring in books, magazines, anything to help pass the time.

All she could do was think.

And wonder what was happening inside the jury room.

* * *

The six men and six women who would decide Valessa's fate were prisoners, too.

The evening before, when the jurors had ended their first day of deliberations, Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett had ordered that they be sequestered. Bailiffs had taken them to a hotel for the night, making sure that they did not talk to anyone about the case, read or watch any news reports, or do anything else that might taint their decision. Until they reached a verdict, they were to be shut away from their families and the rest of the world.

Thursday morning, the 12 jurors were brought back to the courthouse and sent into the jury room, around the corner and down the hall from Valessa's cell.

The jury room, a drab and windowless box with dirty cream walls and government carpet, was not exactly posh, either. Inside were a water cooler, a clock, a coat rack and a dozen padded chairs arranged around a long table.

Piled inside the room were the items submitted into evidence for State of Florida vs. Valessa Lyn Robinson. Included were photos of Valessa and Adam Davis, a video showing the police chase that had ended in their arrest, a tape recording that investigators had made of Valessa's statement later that night, the shovels that had been found in the woods afterward, not far from the garbage can holding Vicki Robinson's body.

The jurors had all of these things to study and weigh. They had instructions on the law, given by Judge Padgett, to guide them. They also had verdict forms, ready to be signed and dated once they reached their decision.

At 8:30 a.m., they were ready to start again. They made their way around the table. They took their seats.

The door closed behind them.

* * *

Down the hall, Valessa had been granted a brief vacation from her cell.

She was allowed to join her attorneys in an unoccupied jury room. There, she changed from her orange jail uniform into one of her court outfits.

Valessa was worried about Dee Ann Athan. She wanted to know if her lead attorney had gotten any sleep and if she was eating. She was also curious about the fact that the jurors were still deliberating. What did it mean? Was it a good omen?

Lisa Campbell, one of the assistant public defenders representing Valessa, told her it suggested that the jurors were thinking hard about the case.

"It means," she said, "that they are taking it seriously."

* * *

The vigil was on.

Vicki Robinson's parents and two brothers had gathered in the south tower of the courthouse, in the office of the state attorney. Valessa's supporters, including her father, her stepmother and her older sister, were camped in the north tower, in the office of the public defender.

Chuck Robinson's birthday had been the day before. He had barely noticed. Exhausted after another day of trial, he'd had soup and gone to bed at 9:30.

"I'm 60," he was saying now. "But I feel like I'm going on 90."

Robinson was standing, with his suit jacket slung over his shoulder, in the lobby outside the defense offices. He was talking about what would happen if Valessa was acquitted. He and his wife, he said, would take Valessa and move away from Tampa. They wanted her to start over someplace fresh, away from the haunts and habits that had turned her life upside down.

"We need to get her out of the environment," he said. "It would be too much of a temptation to fall back."

By now Valessa's attorneys were also hanging out in the lobby. They had just finished talking to Valessa downstairs. She had been returned to the holding cell, and the attorneys had been left to wait along with everyone else.

Dee Ann Athan gave Chuck Robinson a hug and found a seat off to the side. She chatted with the other lawyers, sipped from a bottle of Evian water. In her right hand, she held a rosary, entwined through her fingers.

Athan, a mother of three daughters, once again said that she was there to fight for Valessa's life. She also was there, she said, to sometimes say no.

The other day, Athan said, Valessa had asked if she could change her hairstyle. She had been wearing it curly, but she wanted to straighten it. Athan had told her no. When Valessa asked her why, Athan told her the matter was not up for discussion.

The answer was final, she said.

* * *

A visitor was waiting for Vicki Robinson's family.

Jon Whispel sat in the office of prosecutor Shirley Williams. He was in his orange jail uniform and was handcuffed. A bailiff stood nearby.

Vicki's parents and brothers walked in. Tom Klug, Vicki's younger brother, thought Jon looked nervous. He reached out and shook Jon's hand. Jon said what he had come to say.

"What I did was terrible," he told them. "I wish I would have done something to stop it."

Vicki's mother, Donna Klug, put an arm around his shoulder.

"I forgive you," she said. They both began to cry.

For a few moments, Shirley Williams stood in the doorway, watching. This meeting had been Jon's idea.

Before Valessa's trial, he had sat in this very office with Williams, going over the testimony he would give. Once again, he would tell how he had been there with Adam Davis and Valessa the night Vicki was murdered. Once again, he would admit that he had handed over the knife used to kill her.

Then, Jon had made a request.

"When the trial's over with," he said, "I would like to talk to Mrs. Robinson's family."

Williams thought she knew what Jon wanted to do, but she didn't ask him to say it out loud.

She spoke to Vicki's family. For days, they thought about it. Finally, they said yes.

After Jon made his apology Thursday, Tom Klug spoke. Vicki's family had questions for him, things he hadn't been asked in front of the jury. They knew the answers could hurt, but they needed to know.

Tom Klug had pictured Vicki struggling on the kitchen floor. Why hadn't she screamed?

Jon didn't really know the answer. The only sound Vicki was able to make, he said, was when she saw the syringe coming.

"What's that?" he remembered her saying.

Tom also needed to know something about Valessa. In the days that followed Vicki's death, did Jon ever see Valessa in tears?

"She never once cried?" he asked. "Your mother's dead and you don't even cry?"

Jon could provide no consolation. No, he said. He never saw Valessa cry.

* * *

All morning, the 12 had stayed quiet behind the closed jury room door.

It had been different a day earlier. Then, the jury had sent the judge a flurry of notes, asking for everything from a smoke break to an explanation of the robbery law to extra legal pads. Each note was signed by the person they had picked to be their foreman, a 59-year-old Tampa man. He had told the attorneys during jury selection that he had studied psychology in college and that he and his wife had three adult children.

He worked as a self-employed salesman. The lawyers had questioned him about his job. If he was picked for the jury, would his loss of income distract him from his duty in the courtroom?

Not to worry, the man said. He was ready to serve.

"If I'm inconvenienced, so be it," he said. "The worst thing would be for this young lady to not have the best jury to decide it."

The jurors' last question before they had been sequestered the day before had led many to believe they were on the verge of a verdict.

A guilty verdict.

The jurors had wanted to know if a person considered to be a "principal" to a crime was also guilty of that crime. Their question touched upon a key point in the prosecution's argument.

Under the principal theory, someone who intends for a crime to be committed, and who does or says something to cause, encourage or help someone else do it, is just as guilty. In the prosecution's case against Valessa, the application was clear. If Valessa had suggested killing her mother, if she had fetched Adam the bleach, if she had held her mother down for him, she was just as guilty as he was.

Around the courthouse, some were predicting a swift verdict Thursday morning. Now the hours were ticking by without any word. The lawyers paced and traded theories and looked out their office windows at the bright blue sky over downtown Tampa.

What were they thinking in there?

* * *

At the state attorney's office, there was a birthday cake for Shirley Williams. But by late morning, it hadn't been touched.

Prosecutor Pam Bondi's 165-pound St. Bernard, Donovan, wandered through the row of offices, his wagging tail beating everyone, his tongue lolling. He was Bondi's good luck charm. Everyone seemed to want to touch him.

Vicki Robinson's parents were still in the prosecutors' office. Jim Iverson, the lead detective in the case, sat across from them, making small talk.

Mrs. Klug, Vicki's mother, was saying how sorry she was that the teenagers had taken the collection of silver dollars from the house along with Vicki's credit cards. Vicki had been collecting the coins for years, and now Mrs. Klug would never see them again.

Iverson stopped her.

"We recovered them," he said.

He started to root through a pile of evidence there in the office. He pulled out a dusty duffel bag that had been found in Vicki's van in Texas. He unzipped one side and there they were: a clanking pile of Vicki's silver dollars.

Mrs. Klug smiled. They had saved another part of Vicki. The cross Vicki wore around her neck when she died was in a safety deposit box in Michigan. Her furniture was in storage. When Michelle Robinson, Valessa's 19-year-old sister, was ready to settle into a home of her own, the furniture would be hers.

"She says she can't wait," Mrs. Klug said.

* * *

In the public defender's office, Michelle Robinson was nervously passing the time. She glanced at the TV, tuned to a news show. A guest attorney was spinning and waxing on the fate of Valessa. Everyone was reading the tea leaves.

Vicki Robinson had been murdered the summer before Michelle's senior year. Michelle had been visiting her father in St. Louis. "At first, when nobody knew what happened, I knew what happened," Michelle said. "I had a bad feeling. I knew it was Adam."

In one summer, her mother was killed and her sister was in jail. Michelle finished high school up North. She saw a counselor. She prayed.

"There's a part of me that's a little girl and wants to curl up and die," she said. "And there's another part of me that wants to be a strong woman."

The strong woman was on display Thursday. Brown-eyed, coltish, with a trail of freckles across her cheeks, Michelle had learned to guard her tragedy from the curious. She hated the cameras and the death-celebrity culture. In her own life, away from the courthouse, she barely mentioned to anyone what happened in the summer of 1998.

But to attend her sister's trial, she went to the human resources officer at her job and explained why she would need a couple of days off.

"I'm Michelle and my sister is Valessa, the girl on TV."

Still, she doesn't know how to explain it. "Should I say my mom's the one that got murdered two years ago," she wonders, "or do I say my sister is on trial for murder?"

In some ways, both are gone from her.

When her parents divorced in 1994, Michelle and her sister and her mother became a new sort of family. "It was like the three of us sticking together," she said. "We were best friends. My mom became a best friend instead of a mom."

When Valessa was arrested, Michelle was angry. Then she visited her sister in jail. She asked Valessa point-blank. Did you do it?

Valessa looked Michelle in the eye and answered. "No."

"A sister would know," Michelle said. "That girl can't lie to me."

* * *

The afternoon was trudging toward evening, and now it was past 4:30, and the secretaries and court clerks were packing their things to go home. Some carried Easter baskets for the holiday weekend.

But the jury was still locked in deliberation, nearing its 14th hour. The jurors' silence was mysterious. They had not so much as rapped on the door with a question.

What could they be haggling over all these hours?

Granted, they had been given several dozen pages of complicated legal instructions by the judge. On the murder charge alone, they had several choices. They weren't easy to sort through, let alone reach unanimity on.

First-degree murder was either a premeditated murder or a death that occurred during another serious felony: robbery.

Second-degree murder was a killing through a dangerous act "demonstrating a depraved mind without regard for human life." It didn't require premeditation.

Third-degree murder was a death that occurred during an aggravated battery.

Manslaughter was an act of "culpable negligence," an accident for which someone bore responsibility.

Finally there was the choice of not guilty.

The passing of time meant the jury was tangled on something. The defense felt a spark of optimism. "It's obviously something that makes us hopeful," Lisa Campbell said, her tone cautious.

Just before 5 p.m., the bailiff outside the jury room heard a knock. He opened the door. He was handed a note:

Judge, we are currently deadlocked and the foreman is claustrophobic and needs to get out of the room for awhile.

* * *

Calls were made. Pagers went off. Judge Padgett's courtroom was suddenly full. Only the jury box was empty. The judge swept in and read the note to the court. He pondered aloud what to do.

After six hours Wednesday and 8 1/2 more Thursday, the jury still had no verdict.

Should the jurors be allowed to quit for the night and retire to their sequestered hotel?

Or, if the jury was deadlocked, should the judge invoke the Allen Charge?

The Allen Charge -- also known as the dynamite charge, the shotgun instruction -- was a way of encouraging a deadlocked jury to keep at it. Defense lawyers hated it.

Shirley Williams, the prosecutor, said she worried that with Easter weekend being imminent, the jurors might not want to spend Friday in a jury room. She pushed for the Allen Charge.

Defense attorney Lyann Goudie took a millisecond to respond, "No, your honor."

The jury's options

The verdict form for Valessa Robinson's jury lists several options: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, third-degree murder, manslaughter, not guilty. Valessa also faces charges of robbery and grand theft auto.

  • If the jury says not guilty on all charges, Valessa will walk out of the courtroom, a free person.
  • If she is convicted of first-degree murder, the judge will have no choice of sentence. He will order Valessa to spend the rest of her life in prison without the possibility of release. A first-degree murder conviction in Florida carries only two possible sentences: death or life without release. Because Valessa was only 15 when her mother was killed, she does not face the death penalty.
  • If convicted of second-degree murder, along with robbery and theft, she could still face a life sentence. Sentencing guidelines call for a range of 23 years to life.
  • If convicted of third-degree murder, plus robbery and theft, she faces 13 to 23 years in prison.
  • If convicted of manslaughter, robbery and theft, the guidelines call for a sentence of 12 to 20 years.
She had two options. The jury could be sequestered another night. Or the judge could grant a mistrial.

That would mean the trial would be over without a resolution. There would have to be a new trial, with a new jury, probably months from now. Valessa would wait in jail.

Judge Padgett spoke. His inclination was to allow this jury to deliberate as long as possible. "You can't catch a fish without your hook in the water," he said.

Goudie turned from the bench and let one fly. "I hope the fish is a not guilty fish we're trying to catch."

The judge glanced at the note. The jury foreman was complaining of claustrophobia. "I'm gonna sequester 'em for the night," Judge Padgett decided.

The jury was brought in. The judge told them he was sending them to the hotel, to "let you sleep on it, let you think about it, maybe cool off a little bit. Whatever it takes. We'll bring you back in the morning. We'll deal with this, okay?"

They were due back at 9 a.m. Friday. Good Friday. If the jury could not break its deadlock, there was a chance the judge would give up and declare a mistrial.

For Vicki's friends, the possibility was unsettling. Outside the courtroom, they wondered what Friday would bring. "I'm telling myself I may have to be prepared to do this all over," said Jim Englert, Vicki's boyfriend.

But Englert was sure of one thing. "I'd rather do this all over than have Valessa get less than I think she deserves."

* * *

Valessa watched the jury walk out. As her wrists were handcuffed and the workings of the steel clicked shut, she looked directly at each family member. Her father. His wife. Her sister. Her best friend.

To each, she said the same thing, in a voice stronger than any previous day of her trial.

"I love you."

"I love you."

"I love you."

* * *

The jury will resume its deliberations this morning.

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

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