A mother, a daughter, a murder
  

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The Jurors Here are the 13 jurors selected.

Previous stories
Part 1: The Great Divide
Part 2: Mad Love
Part 3: Valessa in the Tower
Part 4: Before and After


The case at a glance | About this report | Back issues in print

The trial so far

After 2 1/2 days of jury selection, a 12-person panel was sworn in Wednesday for Valessa Robinson's trial.

Lead defense attorney Dee Ann Athan made her opening statement flanked by two huge photographs of Adam Davis and Jon Whispel. They, she said, were the killers, not her client. She portrayed Valessa as the victim of a manipulative Davis.

The first witness for the prosecution was Jim Englert, Vicki Robinson's boyfriend. He described visiting Vicki on the night of June 27, 1998, and encountering Valessa, Davis and Whispel. On cross-examination, the defense asked Englert some questions about Vicki Robinson's style as a parent.

The trial is expected to continue into next week.

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 Mrs. 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.

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.

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.

The Times is seeking to give a full portrait of this case and of the issues that have led so many readers to follow it.

Back issues

This series of special reports began in Sunday's Times. Back issues can be purchased at Times offices throughout Tampa Bay.


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Trial: Opening Fire

Opening Fire

On the third day of trial, 12 jurors are seated. The defense attorney has a blunt message for them: Valessa is an innocent victim, one who has been manipulated and abused.

By SUE CARLTON, THOMAS FRENCH and ANNE HULL, Times Staff Writers

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Tony Lopez]
Valessa Robinson wipes a tear as prosecutor Pam Bondi describes the murder of her mother, Vicki Robinson.
TAMPA -- Only 8:20 a.m., and already the TV crew from 48 Hours was encamped in the front row of the courtroom.

The clerk was wheeling in a cart holding the file for The State of Florida Vs. Valessa Lyn Robinson. Two bailiffs were huddled in the corner, running through a list of those who had survived the first two days of jury selection.

From the lobby came the buzz of spectators waiting to be admitted. A ghostly clinking echoed in the back hallway, where inmates shuffled to other courtrooms in chains.

"Hey, what's up, Blocker?" a TV photographer said to one of the defense attorneys.

The attorney -- who had spent the trial seated beside Valessa, leaning forward so that her body shielded her client from the relentless attention of the news media -- barely nodded.

"That's our nickname for you -- Blocker," said the photographer. "Because every time we try to get a shot, you block us."

It was almost time. The other lawyers had arrived. The grieving family members, joined by blood to both the victim and the accused, were taking their seats.

One of the bailiffs nodded toward the back door.

"She's coming," he said.

* * *

The third day of Valessa Robinson's first-degree murder trial started quietly, then exploded.

Wednesday morning, the lawyers trudged through the final hours of jury selection, still looking for the dozen men and women who would decide whether Valessa was guilty of killing her mother, Vicki Robinson.

The members of Valessa's defense team -- three assistant public defenders and a jury consultant -- spent several hours questioning and evaluating 20 more potential jurors. Now the state and the defense could each strike 10 candidates they found unacceptable.

"Everybody ready?" said Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett, scanning the list of prospects still under consideration. There had originally been 81 candidates; now, after 21/2 days of questioning, the lawyers were down to the last 33.

Up at the bench, Padgett read out loud the first name on the list.

"What says the state?"

"Accept," answered one of the prosecutors.

Padgett turned to the opposing table.

"What says the defense?"

"Accept."

Padgett read aloud another name.

"Accept," said the prosecutor.

"Strike," said a defense attorney.

Down the list of names they went.

"Accept."

"Strike."

"Accept."

"Judge, we would strike."

"We would ask your honor to excuse for cause."

As the list shrank, the lawyers on both sides whispered furiously among themselves, making their last-minute selections.

Judge Padgett grew impatient.

"Okay," he said. "I'm gonna count to three."

More whispers. More requests for more names to be stricken from the list.

"Are you serious?" asked the judge.

Finally, at 11:39 a.m., they had a panel: 12 jurors, plus one alternate in case someone got sick.

"Mr. Bailiff," said Padgett, "bring those jurors in."

The Jurors
Here are the 13 jurors selected.
All morning, Valessa had been wedged between her lawyers, listening to their strategies and reservations, sometimes even offering a few hushed words of her own.

Now she held completely still, gazing across the room at the 12 men and women who would decide whether she would spend the rest of her life in prison.

* * *

Seventeen years ago, when his younger daughter was born, Chuck Robinson wanted to give her a special name. He wanted to find something different, but not so different that it would lead people to make fun of his little girl.

"Something striking," he says. "But something you wouldn't hate to carry around with you for the rest of your life."

Wednesday, Robinson sat in the second row of the courtroom, doing his best to reassure the daughter he and his ex-wife had named so distinctively. He smiled at her, waved, sent her a kiss.

Standing in the back of the courtroom during a break, Robinson talked about his daughter's impassive expression during the trial and acknowledged that many people have assumed it means Valessa does not care.

"When in fact she cares very deeply about what has happened," he said. "And she misses her mother terribly."

Valessa, he said, comes from a family that shies away from emotional displays, especially when times are hard. She tends to keep her feelings to herself. But under the surface, he said, she has grieved deeply over her mother's murder and struggled to come to terms with the charges being leveled against her in court.

His daughter, Robinson insisted, is innocent.

"I don't believe she did it," he said a few moments after the jury was sworn in. "I don't believe it."

* * *

Back in the courtroom, the tension crackled.

Opening statements were about to begin, but first the lawyers fought their way through a flurry of last-minute skirmishes before the jury came in.

Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi stood before the judge with an unusual request. She wanted Dee Ann Athan, the assistant public defender leading Valessa's defense, to keep her hands off her client.

At least in front of the jury.

"We'd ask that Ms. Athan refrain from holding hands with Ms. Robinson throughout the trial," Bondi said, "and that she conduct her questioning and opening statement from the podium, and not with her arms on Ms. Robinson."

All week, Athan had acted like a surrogate mother to Valessa, rubbing her back, straightening her sweater, hugging her.

Now, Athan rose from her seat, fuming.

"Why don't we just send me out of the courtroom?" she said.

Judge Padgett raised an eyebrow. Holding hands? Had Ms. Athan, he asked, really been holding hands with the defendant?

"I was holding her hand," Athan acknowledged. "I have held her hand from time to time. I view her as a child. We're in an adult court with very serious charges. She's a child. I have held her hand."

"Well," Padgett said, "she's also your client."

The judge pondered. Finally he decided to allow the displays of affection, at least for now.

"If that becomes a problem, we'll address it again," he said. "Anything else?"

There wasn't.

The lawyers, and Valessa, stood in the silent courtroom as the jurors were led in.

Nearly every space on the courtroom's battered wood benches was filled; word had spread through the courthouse that openings were about to begin.

Pam Bondi stepped up to the lectern to face the jurors. Her voice was cool and steady.

"Vicki Robinson was a mother," she began.

Bondi said Valessa was a defiant 15-year-old who decided to kill her mother. She told them that Valessa had concocted the plan with her boyfriend, Adam Davis, and their friend Jon Whispel when they were on LSD.

Bondi said Davis attacked Vicki in her own kitchen that night, and that Valessa helped him by holding her mother as he plunged a needle into her neck. She told them that Valessa's only concern, later, was to wash the bloodstains from Davis' hands. Finally, she told them how Valessa ran away with the two young men and her dead mother's money.

Across the courtroom, Valessa bent her head, a curtain of dark hair hiding her eyes.

"After hearing all of the evidence, we have no doubt you will convict Valessa Robinson of this murder," Bondi said. "Thank you."

Then the defense opened fire.

Earlier, Dee Ann Athan's questions and legal arguments often had a frazzled, manic edge. But as she strode to the lectern, all that energy was suddenly harnessed and honed with passion. Athan told the jury that Valessa was an innocent victim, one who had been manipulated, exploited and abused.

"The evidence," she said, pointing to her client, "will show that this little girl could not, was not, the mastermind of this horrible event."

The defense attorney set two 4-foot-high posters on tall easels. Suddenly the faces of Davis, now on death row for his part in Vicki's murder, and Whispel, now serving 25 years in prison for his, were staring at the jury. The pictures, enlarged jail mug shots, showed them in the most malevolent light. They were no longer 19-year-old youths, but hard men with scruffy facial hair and dead eyes.

Athan pointed to the pictures, and then to the girl sitting at the defense table in a cornflower blue dress.

"These men," Athan said, her voice thick with contempt. "These men murdered her mother."

She leaned forward.

"The evidence," she told the jury, "will show that Adam Davis murdered her mother, sexed her, drugged her and dragged her halfway across the country."

The trouble started in the relationship between mother and daughter, Athan told the jury. Valessa was a rebellious teenager, Vicki a passive, permissive single mom.

"And then, the spark that ignited this flame slithered into Vicki Robinson's home. His name was, and is, Adam "Rattlesnake' Davis."

He was a drifter and minor-league criminal when he met Valessa.

"Confused, impressionable, finding her way in the world, rebellious, trying to fit in -- she was ripe for the picking, and Davis picked her," Athan said.

First he thought Valessa was a kid, beneath his notice, Athan said, until he found out about her mother's beautiful house in Carrollwood.

"She was a 15-year-old child, she needed love, she needed support, she needed guidance. She didn't have it, and this guy took advantage of her."

As she spoke about Vicki's parenting, Athan was entering dangerous territory. She assured the jurors that Vicki was not under attack.

"Vicki Robinson was her mom, and she certainly loved her. And she surely did the best that she could. And we're not blaming Vicki Robinson for any of this."

But, Athan said, Davis soon found that he could do as he pleased in the Robinson home. Even when Vicki found him naked in her daughter's bedroom closet, she didn't do anything about it, Athan said.

"He discovers that he can have all the things that he had to steal before: money for drugs, a roof over his head, three square meals, even a swimming pool in the back yard. But then, there's a problem. There's going to be a new sheriff in town."

Vicki Robinson had plans to marry her boyfriend, Jim Englert, Athan said. Davis stood to lose it all.

It was Davis and Whispel who killed Mrs. Robinson that night, who cleaned up the blood, stuffed her body in a trash can in the woods and drove her van away, she said. Davis fed Valessa drugs and kept her in a haze in the days that followed, even as she grew so sick that a security video in a Best Buy showed Davis pushing her around in a wheelchair.

"This man, this adult, was having a lewd and lascivious relationship with that child, giving her drugs, building her fantasies," Athan said. "And that's wrong, because that child cannot consent to sex no matter how old she thinks she is, no matter how grown up she thinks she is."

Valessa was not guilty.

"The charge is murder," Athan told the jury. "But the case is really about our failure to protect that child."

* * *

Jim Englert got the page before lunchtime Wednesday.

Vicki Robinson's boyfriend knew he was first on the state's witness list, but the call from the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office came a day earlier than expected.

Englert rushed home to change. He went to his closet and put on the black suit and silver tie Vicki had surprised him with their last Christmas together.

Around his neck was a chain with the topaz ring he'd given Vicki. She was wearing it when she died.

Englert met Vicki through a Christian singles group. Their first date was the Clearwater Jazz Holiday in the fall of 1996; Vicki brought her two daughters. Englert had three kids himself.

He thought Vicki was beautiful and couldn't believe his luck.

The feeling was mutual. Vicki's journal revealed her early hopes for Englert.

Nov. 14, 1996: Jim came over for vegetable lasagna and homemade apple pie. He brought the girls and me roses from his backyard. We shared our first kiss in the kitchen.

Nov. 17, 1996: We went to church at Idlewild Baptist together this morning. It felt so good to sit so close to a man with his arm around me and holding hands. Something I have always dreamed of.

Englert wanted to marry Vicki, but the prospect of being Valessa's stepfather concerned him. She was doing drugs and running away.

Now Vicki was gone, and he was driving to a courthouse in Tampa.

He turned up the tape deck in the car. I Finally Found Someone was playing. It was their song. He couldn't stop himself. He began to cry.

* * *

From the witness stand, Englert described Vicki's last night alive. He and Vicki had finished dinner on the night of Friday, June 26, at her Carrollwood house and were watching TV in the living room. Englert was on the floor, and behind him, on the sofa, Vicki was combing his hair.

Around 11:30, Valessa and Adam and another boy walked through the house. Englert got up to leave. It was late. Vicki told Valessa that it was time for the boys to go home.

"Valessa said, "Mom, the boys aren't leaving tonight,' " Englert testified.

He recalled how he had kissed Vicki goodbye in the garage and got in his car. "As I was backing out, though, I will never forget Vicki in the doorway," Englert said.

Athan jumped up, cutting him off. "Objection, non-responsive, there's no question."

"Overruled," Padgett said from the bench.

"Go ahead, Mr. Englert," Bondi encouraged.

Englert tried again. "It's just a picture of her, the look she had on her face, the -- "

"Objection, your honor."

When it was Athan's turn to cross-examine, she burst from the gate, signaling her course. Though she had told the jurors she would not blame Vicki, she now zeroed in on Vicki's decisions with Valessa.

"You didn't agree with Vicki Robinson's parenting style, did you?" she asked Englert, less than a minute into her questioning.

Englert paused. "I don't think any parent would agree 100 percent with anyone else's parenting style."

"But she was doing the best she could," Athan said.

"Definitely," Englert said, "under the circumstances."

Athan pressed Englert about a trip he and Vicki took to Michigan in the summer of 1997, without Valessa.

"In fact," Athan asked, with an edge in her voice, "she stayed alone, didn't she?"

"She didn't go with us," Englert said, "but I assumed she stayed, around the house."

The seed had been planted. Later, Athan circled back to it, raising the possibility that a mother had left a 14-year-old at home alone for two weeks.

"Tell us why Valessa didn't go to Michigan, tell us about that," Athan said.

"She ran away the day before," Englert answered.

"When you say she ran away," Athan countered, "we're talking about she stayed out all night, right?"

"She would stay out for days," Englert answered softly.

Athan closed in. "You have personal knowledge of that?"

"I can't say I do."

The attorney offered another possibility: that Valessa was simply spending the night at a friend's house before leaving for the vacation.

Did Vicki try to reach her daughter? Athan asked.

Englert said he didn't know.

Athan kept pushing. "She was 14 years old, and she told her mother, "I'm not going on the trip.' And so the next day when you came to the Robinson house, everyone left, and left Valessa in Tampa, right?"

"Correct," Englert said.

"And the whole time, no one called to even see if she was alive, did you?"

"I personally didn't call," Englert said, "but I don't know, maybe Vicki did."

No further questions.

* * *

Valessa rose to her feet as the jury filed out for the day. When they were gone, she seemed small and drained. Athan fiercely wrapped an arm around Valessa's shoulders. Valessa hung her head and leaned into her attorney.

Athan whispered into Valessa's ear and kept squeezing, and Valessa only melted closer into her attorney, and then it was time.

A bailiff led her out. A few minutes later, another assistant public defender from Valessa's team -- the Blocker, the one who shields Valessa from the daily unblinking gaze -- crossed the empty courtroom. In her hand she carried Valessa's white sweater and cornflower blue dress.

* * *

The prosecution will continue its case today.

- Research: John Martin. Transcription: Michael Canning.

* * *


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