A mother, a daughter, a murder
  

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Jury selection

Jury selection in Valessa Robinson's trial began Monday and continued Tuesday. The picking of the 12-person panel is expected to be completed Wednesday.

Valessa Robinson is charged with first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. Because Valessa was only 15 at the time of the murder, she does not face the death penalty.

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 Mrs. Robinson's 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, recently had spent six months in jail for theft and burglary.

Six days after Vicki Robinson's disappearance, Valessa and Davis -- along with 19-year-old Jon Whispel -- were arrested after a high-speed chase on Interstate 10 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 down her mother.

Whispel pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Late last year, Davis was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

About this special report

The St. Petersburg Times is providing expanded coverage of Valessa Robinson's first-degree murder trial.

Why so much coverage of one trial? Because the Robinson case 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.

In delving beyond the matters being debated in the courtroom, the Times seeks to give a fuller portrait of this case and of the issues that have led so many readers to follow it.

Valessa Robinson's trial is expected to last about a week.


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Trial: Before & After

Before & After

Before, she was a niece who loved to fish. After, she was a 17-year-old, sitting in a courtroom for the second day, watching her attorneys try to pick a jury.

By SUE CARLTON, THOMAS FRENCH and ANNE HULL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2000


photo
[Times photo -- Jamie Francis]
Kirt Klug, Vicki Robinson's younger brother, pulls her business card out of his wallet once a week to look at the picture.
TAMPA -- Vicki Robinson's younger brother keeps a worn business card in his wallet. He takes it out once a week, just to look at the picture. Those eyes. Just like his.

The card reads:

Vicki Robinson, Broker/Realtor, 15 yrs. experience.

Kirt Klug does not use the word "murder" or "death" to describe what happened to his sister. He says "after."

When describing a keepsake of Vicki's, he says, "We found it in her house, after."

For Klug, life has been split in two.

There is before, and there is after.

Before. When his sister and her daughter Valessa would visit the family cottage on Michigan's Little Crooked Lake, and Valessa would fish for hours. "Sometimes she'd stay out late at night," Klug remembers, "fishing by herself."

And then there is after.

When the phone rang in July of 1998 and he learned that Vicki had been found dead in the woods, and her 15-year-old daughter, Valessa, was being charged with murder along with two friends.

Which is how Klug found himself having a hotel breakfast Tuesday morning and walking to a courthouse in a strange city.

In a Hillsborough County courtroom, the 38-year-old Klug contemplated his niece, sitting at the defense table in a blue plaid jumper.

She was now 17. It was the first time he had seen her since before.

Klug kept trying to find her gaze, but Valessa would not look back. Her eyes stayed elsewhere.

Finally, her eyes met his, for just an instant.

Then she looked away.

* * *

In the crowded lobby outside the courtroom, a young man with sunglasses pushed up on his close-cropped hair stepped away from the noise around him. He flipped open a cellular phone and punched a number.

"You won't believe what jury I got called for," he told the person on the other end of the line. "Valessa Robinson."

A pause.

"Crazy s---, man."

The third floor of the Hillsborough County courthouse was thick with dozens of men and women who had been chosen at random as potential jurors in Valessa's first-degree murder trial. They had come carrying briefcases, knitting, hardbacks by Stephen King and Dean Koontz, the latest Us magazine, cans of Slim-Fast -- not to mention their collective life experiences, biases, common sense and preconceived notions about Valessa.

On Tuesday, Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett presided over the second day of jury selection. The prosecution had its share of questions for the prospective jurors, asking them about divorce, drugs, the ethics of trying a juvenile as an adult. Still, most of the day was taken up with questions from the defense.

Assistant Public Defender Dee Ann Athan spent hours in front of the prospective jurors, making sure they understood, among other things, that a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

"Valessa Robinson is innocent as she sits here today," said Athan, standing directly behind her client and placing a hand on her shoulder. "Does every one of you agree with that?"

Still touching Valessa, Athan asked each person the same question, one at a time.

"Can you agree with that?"

"Can you agree with that?"

"Can you agree with that?"

All the jurors, nodding in turn, said they could.

The day before, Athan had appeared on edge. Like the other lawyers, she had been working long hours preparing her case, and it had shown. Some of her questions had meandered, baffling the people she was interviewing. Several times, they had obviously grown annoyed with her, shaking their heads and openly critiquing the logic of her questions.

"You're looking for black and whites," said one woman. "There are no absolutes."

Tuesday, Athan came back strong. She was more focused, more controlled, ready to plow through any barrier that might stand between her client and a fair trial.

Even her own demeanor.

"Does everybody understand that I am Valessa's voice in this courtroom?" Athan asked, leaving the podium to move closer to the jury box. "I speak very loud. Does anybody have a problem with that?"

Athan acknowledged that as she argued the case, some of the jurors might find her irritating, even "obnoxious." That was okay, she said, as long as they didn't take those feelings out on Valessa.

"You can hold that against me," she said. "Not against her."

Athan also said she did not want the prospective jurors to be influenced by Valessa's attire. The lawyer noted that before her arrest, Valessa had worn T-shirts and baggy jeans. Now, sitting before them in court, watching the proceedings silently, she was dressed conservatively. Did the prospective jurors, Athan asked, view Valessa's makeover as manipulation? Did any of them think the defense was trying to put one over on them?

In the back row of the jury box, a man wearing a ponytail and a gray suit made a confession.

"I don't ordinarily dress like this, either," he said.

Laughter spread across the courtroom. Athan smiled, too, then dove back into her questions.

Repeatedly, Judge Padgett told her she was straying.

"Ms. Athan, I hate to interrupt you," he said, "but this has nothing to do with this case."

A few minutes later, when the judge rebuked her again, Athan noticed one of the prospective jurors smiling. Quickly, she turned to him. Did he understand that she was merely doing her job? If the judge disagreed with her from time to time, was that going to prejudice this person against her client?

The prospective juror stopped Athan. He said he had been smiling because he had to go to the bathroom, and he'd heard another person in the jury pool saying the same.

His point was well-taken. The men and women in the jury box were not machines who could sit motionless for hours, coldly evaluating the case before them. Like anyone else, they had frailties, prejudices, emotions.

One woman grew tearful Tuesday as she talked about the defendant sitting across the room. After all the news reports on the case, she said, she believed that Valessa had helped kill her mother. Still, she could not help sympathizing with Valessa.

"But I feel real sorry for her," said the woman. She paused.

"Do you want me to get you a Kleenex?" asked one of the lawyers.

"I'm okay."

Another member of the panel admitted that she wasn't sure she could be impartial. She had met Vicki Robinson, a real estate agent, at an open house and remembered her vividly.

"I wasn't introduced to her or anything," said the woman. "I can just see her face."

Moments later, the judge dismissed her from the case.

The young man with the sunglasses, the one who had talked about the case on his cell phone, was also dismissed.

* * *

There was one person in the courtroom Valessa sought out with her gaze, and that was Chuck Robinson, sitting in the second row. Of all her family, her father had been her steadiest supporter since the murder.

Friends and family of Vicki Robinson say Chuck Robinson saw his daughter only sporadically after they divorced when Valessa was 11. Yet after his daughter was charged with murder, Robinson moved to Florida from Missouri to be near her. He has visited her weekly -- sometimes more -- in jail for 19 months.

Until the trial began Monday, Robinson had not seen Vicki's family since July 1998, when he attended Vicki's memorial service and then helped tend to the awkward business of sorting through his daughter's belongings at the Carrollwood house.

Vicki's family had not seen or spoken to Valessa since her arrest.

"She owes us an apology," said Vicki's mother, Donna Klug, 75. "I do pray for her soul."

There was no hostility in her voice, just the subdued Lutheran answer to incomprehensible pain.

Mrs. Klug's voice was soft as she took in her granddaughter at the defense table. "She looks taller and thinner," she said. "That's what Vicki did; she was short in high school, then started growing."

Mrs. Klug allowed a sad smile.

Maybe she saw the daughter she lost, and the granddaughter, too.

* * *

Dee Ann Athan pressed on. She asked what the prospective jurors knew about drugs. One young man said he had some knowledge of LSD.

"I've seen some of my friends messed up on it," he said.

What about the fact, Athan asked, that her client had been 15 at the time of her mother's murder? Until a couple of weeks ago, when Valessa turned 17, the lawyer pointed out, she was too young to go to an R-rated movie without an adult.

Did her age make a difference in anyone's mind?

One of the prospective jurors shrugged.

"I think it's a piece of the puzzle," he said. "It's relevant."

Athan asked many members of the panel why they would make good jurors for this case. One by one, they talked about their impartiality, their sense of fairness, lessons their parents had taught them when they were children.

One woman, seated in the second row, had lost her voice and could speak only in a soft whisper. When she tried to answer Athan's question, Athan could not hear her. So one of the other prospective jurors, seated in front of the woman, listened carefully and gave a shorthand version of the woman's qualifications.

"Single parent . . . 7-year-old son . . . heard nothing about the case till yesterday . . . her son keeps her busy with his homework . . . she has no time to watch the news."

Athan and the other lawyers defending Valessa spent hours Tuesday on the subject of pretrial publicity, questioning the potential jurors at length to find out if any of them had been swayed by coverage of the case in the newspapers or on TV. Particular attention was paid to the stories in the St. Petersburg Times. One defense attorney said that most of the media's coverage was "garbage."

Over the course of the first two days, more than 30 people were excused from the case after admitting a bias against Valessa based on pretrial coverage. When questioned individually in the afternoon, only one said she had read this week's stories in the Times.

Some people gathered in the courtroom had gleaned the smallest details in news reports, from the Carrollwood Denny's where detectives say it started to the spot in west Texas where the three teenagers were arrested.

But others seemed surprised by the cameras in the courtroom.

"I could probably tell you more about the couple of hurricanes that hit Australia and South America than I could about this case," a waitress said.

Another prospective juror said that, to him, a newspaper meant the sports page and TV meant watching cartoons with his son.

"So on Friday, if someone had said the name Valessa Robinson, you wouldn't have known who they were talking about?" a lawyer asked him.

"Not unless they explained it to me," he replied.

Another dozen or so were excused for various reasons, including scheduling conflicts and friendships with some of the witnesses listed in the case.

The lawyers' inquiries -- highly personal at times -- caused some squirming. Have you ever been arrested? What for? What is your personal experience with drugs? Often, there was a pause after the attorney's question, as if the person was mulling over how much to reveal in front of a courtroom full of spectators and cameras.

Some worried how a trial might affect their personal lives. One woman told the lawyers that she and her fiance had an appointment to close on their new house. A church elder wondered if the court would be in session on a Sunday.

One of the excused jurors, a deli clerk from Publix, talked about the case after the judge dismissed her. She said she had sat in the courtroom, watching Valessa and trying to understand what role drugs had played in her life.

"I see a child," she said. "I see -- and this is where the drugs come in -- I see a child that is probably very, very unhappy inside."

By late Tuesday afternoon, the lawyers were still probing. Judge Padgett told the panel he had foolishly expected that the last round of questioning would have moved more quickly. He sent everyone home, hoping out loud for a jury by noon today.

* * *

Since the beginning of the trial, Vicki's family had sat apart from Chuck Robinson in the courtroom. Vicki's mother, Donna Klug, said she was not angry at her daughter's ex-husband. They would always have Vicki's older daughter, Michelle, in common.

"He feels bad like we do," Mrs. Klug said. "He's a father of two little girls."

Chuck Robinson echoed her sentiments. "We feel for their family, and we pray for them," he said.

During a short recess, they found themselves together in the lobby. Robinson asked how the Klugs were doing. They spoke quietly, and he put his arms around Vicki's mother.

They embraced.

"It's real hard," he said.

His eyes filled with tears.

* * *

Jury selection resumes this morning.

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

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