The trial: Day 5
The defense concluded its cross-examaination of the state's most important witness, Jon Whispel. Lead defense attorney Dee Ann Athan painstakingly questioned Whispel on the details of his version of the night Vicki Robinson was killed, and what he, Adam Davis and Valessa did afterward. Again, she sought to portray Davis as the person responsible for the murder, and Valessa as being drugged and under his control.
Several law enforcement witnesses followed, including Sheriff Bruce Wilson, of Pecos County, Texas, who testified about the arrest of Valessa and her friends; Larry Jackson, the deputy who shot out the tires of the minivan; and Tampa police Cpl. Keith Billingsley, who encountered Valessa when she ran away with Davis a month before the murder.
The trial will resume Monday.
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. 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.
By SUE CARLTON, THOMAS FRENCH and ANNE HULL
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2000
Dee Ann Athan's suits were hanging off her. Half-gulped cups of V8, boxes of takeout barely touched. Sleep was a five-hour inconvenience to the task at hand: defending Valessa Robinson.
Her lawyers spent their days arguing the case and their nights cramming for when light came again.
But Thursday after court, Athan and the two other lawyers on the defense team left the office for two hours. Loaded with files, they set up camp at a South Tampa hair salon.
The next morning they would have another chance to cross-examine Jon Whispel, the state's key witness.
They had hundreds of pages of testimony Whispel had already given. Now, while Athan and another attorney got their hair cut, the lawyers hunted through the files. They needed to find weaknesses in Whispel's story. Discrepancies, inconsistencies, points of attack.
They had to be ready.
* * *
Friday, even as he slouched in the witness chair, Jon Whispel looked wary.
The day before, he had endured more than two hours of contentious cross-examination. Athan had tried to portray him as a liar out to save his own skin.
She had told the jury that Valessa was a vulnerable child, led by her boyfriend, Adam Davis, and Whispel into a world of drugs, sex and, finally, murder.
Now it was round two.
'Okay, let's focus on how Valessa was feeling in the days after Vicki Robinson's murder," Athan said crisply. Hadn't Valessa been especially pale and tired and sickly? Yes, he said.
Had she eaten much? No.
Athan wanted to talk about the chase with Texas law officers as the trio sped west on Interstate 10 in Vicki Robinson's minivan.
Whispel had testified Thursday that when Adam Davis saw the cruiser coming up behind them, he hit the gas, slammed in a CD and cranked up the volume.
'A little traveling music," Davis had said.
Then, Whispel said, Valessa lit two cigarettes: one for her and one for Adam.
The picture of Valessa coolly lighting up a last cigarette clearly concerned Athan. Why hadn't Whispel bothered to disclose this detail before?
Whispel shrugged. 'If I didn't, I didn't," he said. 'I mean, no, I don't think I did."
Athan made him recite the terms of the plea deal that ensured he wouldn't end up on death row.
'All you have to do, Mr. Whispel, is come to court and testify against Adam Davis and Valessa Robinson?" she asked.
'And tell the truth, your honor," prosecutor Pam Bondi interjected.
'And who decides the truth, Mr. Whispel?" Athan shot at him. 'Who decides the truth? Do I decide the truth?"
Whispel looked straight at her.
'Somebody who was there who seen it and knows what happened," he said.
Then, it was Bondi's turn again. Once more, she had Whispel provide the state's most damning image: Vicki Robinson lying on her stomach as Davis sat on her back and Valessa held down her legs. That's how they were, Whispel said, when he handed over the knife.
Bondi tried to counter the defense's picture of Valessa as compliant and controlled. Had Adam forced her to get the 'A" tattoo on her hand? No, Whispel said. Had Adam made her do drugs? No.
'Did you ever see Adam be anything but sweet to Valessa Robinson?" Bondi asked.
'That's all he was to her," Whispel said.
And then he was done.
The bailiffs led him away in chains, back to the jail and then to state prison, where he will spend the next 21/2 decades for his part in what happened to Vicki Robinson.
Like nearly everyone involved in the case, his attorney has wondered about the senselessness of the killing. What had Whispel gained? Why had he taken part?
'He can't tell you," Brian Gonzalez said. 'He doesn't know."
* * *
The witness entered the courtroom in a Western-style blazer and blue jeans and black calfskin boots, his badge hanging from the pocket of his shirt. He had left his white straw cowboy hat at the state attorney's office, out of respect for the court proceedings.
It didn't matter. Even without the hat, there was no mistaking who and what he was.
'Now that looks like a Texas sheriff," said a woman seated in the gallery.
Bruce Wilson, the sheriff of Pecos County, took the stand and told the jury how he had ended up chasing Valessa, Jon Whispel and Adam Davis down a stretch of highway at 100 mph.
In a soft Texas accent, the sheriff explained how he had been reading teletypes on the case in early July of 1998, following the details of Vicki Robinson's disappearance and the search for the three teenagers. From the latest reports, he knew they were in a green Nissan Quest minivan, headed toward his county on Interstate 10. So he and one of his deputies had waited in a cruiser along a curve in the highway.
When a van matching that description appeared, the sheriff pulled behind it and turned on his lights and siren, trying to get the van to stop.
'Did the vehicle comply?" asked Bondi.
'No, it did not," said Wilson.
To help the jurors understand what came next, the prosecution played a videotape taken from the car of a Texas highway patrol trooper. The video had no sound; instead, the sheriff narrated the action.
There was the van rushing past, he said, pointing to it with the red beam of a penlight. There was the police cruiser -- the one he and his deputy were in -- tearing after it, with his deputy leaning out the passenger window to fire his pistol. There was the van, spinning after the deputy shot out its two back tires.
'This is the trooper here," Wilson said, pointing to an officer aiming another gun in the direction of the van. 'He's telling them to stop, stop, stop."
By now the courtroom was packed. People lined the walls, craning their necks to see the video. At the defense table, Valessa was leaning forward, trying to see better.
That day, after she was taken into custody, Valessa had compared the chase to a scene from a movie. Now she was seeing the movie for herself.
After the video, Bondi turned back to the witness.
'Sheriff," she said, 'what was her demeanor when she was arrested?"
'She was mad, in my opinion."
'Was she crying?"
When Bondi finished, it was Athan's turn. When the three were taken into custody that day, she asked, had he known they were murder suspects?
No, he said. It was not confirmed that Vicki Robinson was dead; all they knew was that she'd disappeared.
'At that time," he said, 'there was foul play feared."
The sheriff was excused, and the state called in the deputy who'd shot out the tires. This was Larry Jackson. In court that morning, Whispel had described him as a 'big gorilla-like dude" who had stood in the road that day, aiming his gun at Adam until he stopped the van.
Jackson was obviously a good shot, but walking into court, he made for a poor gorilla. He was not particularly tall or large; he wore glasses and had graying hair and called the lawyers 'ma'am."
Athan returned to the same questions she'd posed to the sheriff.
'Now you understand the reason you were stopping this van was because there were murder suspects inside?"
'No, ma'am," said Jackson. All he'd known that day, he said, was that Vicki was missing. In fact, he said, when they were chasing the van, they'd thought Vicki might be inside.
Athan heard this and stopped.
'And you shot at this van, knowing that there might be a missing lady in this van?"
A few minutes later, when the lawyers were finished with their questioning, Jackson joined Wilson outside the courtroom.
The deputy smiled.
'Can we go to Texas?" he said.
* * *
Just before her trial had begun, Valessa had written a letter to a friend.
She had sent it from jail.
I want to cry and I need to cry but I can't. And every time I start I'm always afraid that I won't be able to stop.
I lost the most important person in my life and I'm going to have to relive that loss in a few days. Not something I particularly want to do and I'm not looking forward to it.
The only way or reason I'd be looking forward to it is, if at some point during my trial (whether it be the beginning, middle or end) my mom comes in and tells me that she's all right and that nothing really happened to her and it was all just a big lie.
* * *
The letter was sent to James Hardee. A couple of months before the murder, Hardee had stayed at the Robinson house for three weeks.
One evening this week, after receiving the letter, Hardee went to the jail to visit Valessa. Her spirits were low, he said afterward.
The trial had begun, and there still was no Vicki walking through the door of the courtroom.
Only more exhibits from the state that showed how brutally she had died.
* * *
Friday, during the lunch break, Dee Ann Athan tried to regroup.
She was two floors above the courtroom, standing in the tiny corner of chaos that passes for her office. Her desk, the couch, even the floor, all were cluttered with fat files. Her three daughters smiled from framed photos. Nearby sat a present from Valessa, a paperback called Saving the Millennial Generation.
Another lawyer stuck her head in the door.
'Do you want some chicken and yellow rice?"
Athan tried to think. Did she want lunch? Did she have time for lunch? Just yesterday, she had literally forgotten what day it was.
There was too much to do. She was fighting for the life of a girl who still listened to Radio Disney, and nobody seemed to understand why this girl deserved a defense at all. Athan got asked that one a lot. Now she was drowning in depositions and motions and pads of paper covered with scribbled questions that she had to remember to ask the state's next witnesses.
She was a wreck.
'It's a friggin' murder trial for a 17-year-old, for heaven's sake," Athan told one of her assistants who was trying to deal with another logistical nightmare.
There were so many problems to deal with. Like this business of whether the police had considered Valessa a murder suspect when she was picked up in Texas.
The prosecution and its witnesses kept saying that Valessa had only been considered a runaway. Why did they say that? Athan believed it was because if they admitted Valessa had been a suspect, they'd also be admitting that she'd been questioned improperly by the police before anyone went over her rights with her. And if that happened, the judge might be inclined to throw out the taped statement Valessa had given, saying she had killed her mother.
Athan was furious about that statement.
Didn't anybody care that a young girl had been interrogated in the middle of the night without a lawyer, without anyone to stand up for her?
Athan was going to keep objecting, keep arguing, keep pestering.
* * *
Valessa's past kept streaming before her eyes Friday. Whispel's voice. The video of the Texas chase. Her black unicorn wallet, wrapped in an evidence bag.
And then there was her devotion to Adam.
The prosecution called a Tampa police officer who had picked up Valessa when she ran away a month before the murder. She was found with Adam and a book bag inscribed with the words: Valessa loves Adam.
After Valessa was handcuffed and placed in the back seat of the police cruiser, Cpl. Keith Billingsley testified, she began kicking at the windows when she learned that Davis was being arrested.
'Did she say anything to you?" asked prosecutor Shirley Williams.
'She said, "I don't care who it is or what I have to do, I'm going to be with him no matter what it takes.' "
The prosecutor let it hang in the air for a beat. 'No more questions," she said.
Athan was already on her feet. 'Mr. Billingsley," she said, 'you decided (Adam) was the reason she wasn't in school that day, didn't you?"
She pounded her point.
'The adult was keeping the child out of school, right?"
The lawyers moved quickly through the next witnesses.
There was the Home Depot clerk who sold Adam and Jon the concrete. There was a fingerprint expert. There was the Ybor City tattoo parlor manager who saw Valessa, Adam and Jon getting tattoos on the weekend of the murder. He testified that the trio was flush with cash, 'excited and spinning."
Athan, holding up a consent form, suggested that only adults could legally get tattoos, so didn't that make Valessa a child?
The most graphic testimony came from the crime scene technician who had photographed the garbage can in the woods that held Vicki Robinson's decomposed body.
Williams, the prosecutor, began carefully, trying to find theright words. 'Um, tell the jury about what time of day you got there, and what you saw when you arrived."
'It was in the morning hours," the technician answered. 'And uh, there was, there was someone out there. Like, one of the detectives."
From the defense table, Athan stood. It was not to make an objection, though. 'May we approach just briefly?"
The lawyers whispered with Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett at the bench so no one else in the courtroom could hear them. Valessa came from the defense table to join them.
The judge quietly asked her, 'You wish to leave the room?"
'Yes, sir," she answered, nodding.
'You have the right to be present during testimony," Padgett said.
'Okay," Padgett said, 'take her out."
And with that, Valessa left the courtroom. She would not see, on a large screen, two photos of the garbage can containing her mother's body.
Vicki Robinson's family, crowded together across two rows of the gallery, wondered, along with the rest of the courtroom, where Valessa had gone.
As the technician resumed his testimony, the state introduced into evidence a series of crime scene photos. The first was an aerial shot of the woods where Vicki's body was found.
Quietly, Vicki's parents walked out of the courtroom.
* * *
In the lobby, Vicki's mother, Donna Klug, sat on a bench.
She wondered why Valessa had been allowed to leave the courtroom.
'She should be made to take it," Mrs. Klug said, 'to sit there and watch it."
The 75-year-old woman began to cry, holding her purse on her knees.
'My daughter," she said. 'What they did to my daughter."
* * *
The trial resumes Monday.
-- Research by John Martin. Transcription by Michael Canning.
© Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.