Listen to taped statements of Valessa Robinson, Adam Davis and Jon Whispel
The trial: Day 6
The state completed its case Monday. Hillsborough Sheriff's Detective John Marsicano testified about interviewing Valessa in Odessa, Texas, on July 3, 1998. Marsicano played a tape of the statement Valessa gave that night, in which she claimed she alone had killed her mother: "I remember I had stabbed her in the throat and it released a lot of blood. And she wasn't dead yet and so I stabbed her again twice in her back. And then I couldn't handle all the blood and everything and I panicked and I went in my room and I had Jon and Adam clean up the blood ... "
The defense will start to present its case today. Defense lawyers indicated they might complete their case in a matter of hours, which suggests Valessa will not testify. The judge told jurors he expected they would hear closing arguments Wednesday.
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 her mother down.
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 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.
This series of special reports began in Sunday's Times. Back issues can be purchased at Times offices throughout Tampa Bay.
The Girl in White
By SUE CARLTON, THOMAS FRENCH
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2000
The scene is a teenage girl's bedroom. Music thrums. There is Jon in the background with his Marlboros. There is Adam, wearing a baseball cap and playing with a taser gun.
And there is Valessa, pulling Adam off the bed to dance with her. She knows every word to the song by the Verve Pipe, and she sings to him.
Eight months before her mother's murder, Valessa set up the camera in her room while Adam and Jon were over. She hangs on Adam in a puppy dog clutch. He dances away from her, throwing gangster poses for the camera, flexing his biceps.
Valessa settles on Adam's lap, and he wraps his arms around her. She wants to dance again. She is 6 inches shorter than Adam, with the baby fat of a 14-year-old and slightly slumping shoulders, but she melts into him, wills herself into his distracted universe.
Then there's a knock at the bedroom door, interrupting the video, interrupting everything. Always interrupting. It is the voice of a mother.
The screen goes blank.
* * *
A criminal trial is a struggle between two competing narratives. The prosecution calls its witnesses, using them to piece together one interpretation of the case. Then the defense gets up and tries to muddy the state's version, using cross-examination -- and sometimes more witnesses -- to show that the truth is another story altogether.
In the first week of the trial, the jury had been hearing about two Valessas.
One, described by the state, was a 15-year-old murderer who had decided it would be convenient, with the help of two friends, to get rid of her mother and then leave her body inside a garbage can in the woods. The other, portrayed by the defense, was a helpless child -- a "little girl," her lawyers called her -- exploited and manipulated by two men who killed her mother and then victimized her, dragging her across the country on a spree of sex and drugs.
Monday, both versions appeared in the courtroom at the same time.
It happened midmorning. Valessa was seated at the defense table, listening to the state's witnesses; as on every other day of the trial, she was dressed like a young girl on her way to Sunday school. On this day she wore a navy plaid skirt and matching navy flats, all topped off with a sweater set of pure, unadorned white.
Then, just after 10 a.m., the state called to the stand Lt. John Marsicano, a Hillsborough County sheriff's detective who oversaw the investigation into Vicki Robinson's death. Marsicano told the jury how he and another homicide detective, Jim Iverson, had caught up with Valessa in Texas hours after she and Adam Davis and Jon Whispel were taken into custody on July 2, 1998.
Marsicano said that he and Iverson had flown into Texas shortly before midnight and then driven to the juvenile detention center in Odessa, where Valessa was being held. Earlier in the day, she had complained about feeling ill. A nurse, Marsicano said, had examined her and told the detectives that it was okay to question her.
Valessa was brought to a conference room. The two investigators told her they wanted to ask her about the disappearance of her mother.
"What did she tell you?" asked Assistant State Attorney Shirley Williams.
"That she had no idea where her mother was."
When the detectives pressed her, Valessa told them her mother was dead.
"She admitted to being involved in a homicide," Marsicano said.
Valessa told them what happened, he said, and then they went over her Miranda rights with her. Then she drew a map for the detectives showing where her mother's body could be found.
"Did you take a further statement from her?" asked Williams.
"Yes, we did."
"And was that statement tape-recorded?"
"Yes, it was, ma'am."
With that, Williams turned to state's exhibit No. 103. The prosecution had set up a small stereo on the state's table. Now the tape was placed in it, and someone hit play.
First came the sound of Jim Iverson's voice, identifying himself and Marsicano and explaining where they were and that it was 1:09 a.m. Tampa time.
"What I want to do is put this tape recorder down on the table," he was saying to Valessa. "I'll put it down in front of you, so you can talk to it. Just talk clearly so it'll pick you up. What I want you to do is start back to Friday night when you . . . you and . . . you said you and Adam and Jon had been out partying a little. . . . You had done some acid. It was late Saturday . . . early Saturday morning when you came back into the house and apparently you woke your mom up, and you and her got into a little argument there in the kitchen of the house. If you would, just go from there and tell me, uh . . . what happened."
Then came Valessa's answer. It was the first time the jury had heard her speak.
She sounded a little tired. But her voice was even, steady, matter of fact.
"From what I . . . " she began, then started over. "I guess I could say "recall' since I was on acid . . . I remember I had stabbed her in the throat, and it had released a lot of blood. And she wasn't dead yet, and so I stabbed her again twice in her back, and then I couldn't handle all the blood and everything, and I panicked."
As these images poured from the tape in the courtroom, Valessa sat quietly in her white sweater. Her head was bowed. Her eyes were downcast.
"And I went in my room, and I had Jon and Adam clean up the blood, and we took my mom's body and . . . and . . . and the trash can down past Jon's house . . . down a little dirt road."
Some of the jurors were staring at Valessa now.
"And we were gonna bury her, but then there was a couple of problems, so we just stuck the body there. . . . We were gonna go back and bury her, but then I had found out that there was, like, reports that I was missing and my mom was missing, so we had to leave and get out of Florida, and we left."
"You left taking your mom's van?" asked Iverson.
"When y'all left Florida, you came across Interstate 10 towards Texas. How much money did y'all take out of her account?"
"I seriously don't know."
"You used her credit cards? You used her Visa card?"
"You used her Mobil gas card?"
"Yes. I used two other of her credit cards, too. I just don't remember what they're called."
The tape rolled forward. The detectives asked Valessa some more about the cards, then turned to the map that showed where to find her mother's body, then to the knife that she had described using. What had she done with it?
"I don't know," Valessa said. "Honestly. I don't remember where we tossed it. I was so . . . "
"Oh, man. . . . We went to so many different places, I don't remember where . . . "
What kind of knife was it, they asked. It was a pull-out knife, she said. About a foot in length. She said she'd gotten it from a friend named Danny.
"When you stabbed your mother," Marsicano was saying, "what room did that occur in?"
"It all took place out there in the kitchen?"
"Was it close to the sink or closer to the refrigerator?"
"It was closer to the sink."
"Was she facing the sink?"
"Okay, and you said -- "
Here Valessa interrupted.
"Noooooo. . . . She had turned around. She had, she had been facing the sink, but she turned around. When it was finally all done with she was . . . her . . . her feet were facing the sink and her head was towards there."
"Did she hit her head on the floor when she fell?" asked Iverson.
"I had pinned her down. Before I, like, stabbed her, I had to pin her down."
"Were y'all, like, fighting before this happened? I mean, like, physically fighting before you pulled out the knife?"
"You're shaking your head," said Iverson. "You have to say yes or no."
In the courtroom, the tape had brought everyone to silence. Seated in the front row, only a few feet away from his daughter, Chuck Robinson listened, his body bent. Across the aisle, Donna Klug, Vicki Robinson's mother, sat with her eyes squeezed shut.
Marsicano was asking another question.
"What clothes were you dressed in, Valessa? Do you recall?"
"I don't know."
"How was your mother dressed?"
"In her nightgown."
"How was she dressed when she was in the garbage can?"
"In her nightgown."
"What color is that?" asked Iverson.
"Did the knife go through the . . . the nightgown?" asked Marsicano.
"I don't recall it did. Or . . . yeah, it did, when I got her in the back it should have."
The tape seemed to go on and on. The disconnect between the horror of what Valessa was saying and the calm with which she said it hung over every word.
"Okay," Marsicano was saying. "And Adam and Jon were in the bedroom there?"
"They should've been. I don't remember them coming out."
"Was the door open or closed?"
"I don't know. I don't know, but that's all I'm gonna say."
The detectives stopped.
"Are you saying you don't wanna talk anymore?" asked Marsicano.
"No, 'cause my stomach's really getting hurt."
"All right," said Iverson. "We're gonna conclude the interview. It's now one-thirty hours, Tampa time, on the 3rd of July."
Then a loud click.
* * *
Marsicano's testimony wasn't over.
Before he left the stand, the state played a videotape from a TV news broadcast shortly after Valessa was returned to Tampa. It showed her being escorted from another juvenile facility to the county jail. As she was put in a police car, a crowd of reporters and photographers pressed close. Questions were shouted. Why, someone asked, had she done it?
Valessa barely glanced at the questioner.
"You'll find out later," she said.
* * *
For the next hour and a half, Valessa's lead attorney did her best to obliterate the narrative the jurors had just heard.
Assistant Public Defender Dee Ann Athan had been trying for months to have her client's taped statement thrown out. Now that it had been entered into evidence, she fought to prove that the statement had been gained unfairly and that it was all a lie, made up by Valessa to protect Adam Davis.
Athan fired a slew of angry questions at Marsicano. When the detectives interrogated Valessa, hadn't they considered her a murder suspect? Not at first, Marsicano said, repeating that until they spoke with Valessa they had not been sure Vicki Robinson was dead. Were they aware that Valessa had taken LSD that day, just before she was taken into custody? Marsicano said she had seemed lucid and coherent. Hadn't Valessa been in pain during this midnight interview? Marsicano said that after she'd expressed discomfort, they saw to it that she was treated.
What about Valessa's father? Had he been notified that they planned to question his daughter? Yes, Marsicano said, he had called Chuck Robinson and spoken to him before the interview. Had they told Mr. Robinson that his daughter was a murder suspect? No, Marsicano said. He didn't think they'd used the word "suspect" with Mr. Robinson.
As the questions continued, Marsicano's patience grew strained. He wiped his mouth, shook his head, allowed an edge into his polite answers of "no, ma'am" and "yes, ma'am."
Still, despite the defense's best efforts, the sound of Valessa's voice had not been erased.
* * *
As the day stretched on, Chuck Robinson deflated. Hearing his daughter admit to murder, he slumped forward.
Every morning, he and his wife, Venessa, had left their home before dawn to take their seats in the front row. By the end of each afternoon, they were drained.
"It feels like we've been here forever," Mrs. Robinson told her husband when they returned for another day of trial.
Whatever rivers of grief and rage had flowed beneath the surface, an uneasy civility had been maintained since testimony began. Vicki's family had sat behind the prosecution table; Chuck and Venessa Robinson sat close to the defense. The two sides had shaken hands, even embraced.
But Monday, the delicate order was shaken with the arrival of Adam Davis' stepmother, Donna Davis.
"I want to see that she gets justice," she said, loudly, just outside the courtroom. "Adam didn't introduce drugs to Valessa. Adam isn't the mastermind. Valessa participated in the death, and she celebrated after her mother's death."
Mrs. Davis was angered that Adam received death and Valessa only faces life in prison. She felt Valessa had been given special treatment.
"Valessa got to have a birthday party in the courtroom," Mrs. Davis said. "We fight to see Adam for 15 minutes."
In court, she glared at Valessa and shook her head in disgust at the defense attorneys. At the start of the afternoon, she moved from her seat near the back of the courtroom.
Now she positioned herself directly behind Chuck and Venessa Robinson, leaning forward onto the back of their bench.
The Robinsons stared forward.
* * *
On the witness stand, Colleen Macklem was telling the jury about the first time she met Valessa Robinson.
Weeks before the murder, their paths crossed because they had something in common: Both had boyfriends in the county jail, and the two men had become friendly. Macklem's boyfriend asked if she would bring Adam's girlfriend along the next time she visited him. Macklem arranged to pick Valessa up at a local Kash 'n Karry after Valessa's mom dropped her off there.
During the 20-minute ride to the jail, Valessa started to complain about her mother. She said her mother wouldn't let her do what she wanted, and that her mother was the reason Adam was in jail, for helping Valessa run away.
Then Valessa told Macklem something else.
"And she was like, all the sudden her exact words were to me, "I'm gonna kill my mom, and I'm gonna get Adam to help me.' "
Macklem said that when she tried to reason with Valessa, she was cut off.
"She's like, "You better be nice to me, or I'll kill you, too,' " Macklem testified. "She was like, "You don't know my mom, you don't know me, you don't know our situation.' "
But when they got to the jail and Valessa walked to the visiting booth where Adam waited on the other side of the plexiglass, everything changed, Macklem said.
"When she saw Adam, she was like a ray of sunshine," Macklem said. "A totally different person."
On cross-examination, Athan didn't hide her scorn. Why had she waited more than a year, until she was being interviewed as a possible witness in Adam's trial, to divulge this damning evidence?
Athan also got Macklem to admit that, though disturbing, Valessa's words may have been just an impetuous outburst by a typical teenager.
Yes, Macklem said. "Mothers. Sometimes they just make you want to scream."
Then came the most disturbing testimony of the day. The state called Dr. Lee Miller, veteran of 6,000 autopsies and hundreds of court cases, to the stand.
Vicki Robinson's parents and brother left the courtroom. They knew what was about to be described.
Dr. Miller told the jury that Vicki's body had been put into the garbage can headfirst. Because of decomposition, he could not detect a needle mark in Vicki's neck or confirm the presence of bleach in her system. He could not even tell if the two disturbed areas of her lower back were definitely knife wounds.
Dr. Miller laid fingers to the side of his own neck to show the jury where Vicki had been stabbed. She could have lived a minute or more afterward, he said.
"Would Mrs. Robinson have been conscious during that time?" prosecutor Williams asked.
"Yes," Dr. Miller said. "Most of it, anyway."
The official cause of death?
His voice was dry and professional. "Homicidal violence," he said, "including stab wound of neck, penetrating left carotid artery and jugular vein."
One of the jurors pressed a handkerchief to her lips. Valessa sat trembling, her shoulders hunched forward. She raised her fists to cover her eyes.
"Did you observe any type of defensive wounds on her hands or arms?" Williams asked.
"No," Dr. Miller said. "There were no such wounds."
The implication was clear. Vicki never had the chance to fight back.
Across the courtroom, Valessa dropped her head to the table.
* * *
Just after 3 p.m., the prosecution made an announcement.
"The state rests, your honor."
Suddenly the trial was hurtling forward. In barely more than three days, prosecutors had methodically laid out their case in the courtroom: the shovels, the map Valessa drew to her mother's body, the dead-voiced confession on tape, the vows by Valessa that she would not be separated from Adam, the testimony of the friend who said he had seen it all. The state's case had been neat and compact. Now it was over.
The great unknown was Valessa. Which girl would the jurors remember? The schoolgirl in white, or the voice on the tape?
Which would they believe?
Next it would be the defense's turn. The most crucial decision remained.
Should Valessa testify?
Monday afternoon, the lawyers gathered in the judge's chambers to plot out the rest of the trial. It was there that Valessa's attorneys seemed to tip their hand. They estimated that they would need only half of Tuesday to present their case.
Half a day?
The defense planned to present an LSD expert. His testimony alone was likely to take up a couple of hours. If Valessa were going to testify, it would easily take twice that much time. Then would come a lengthy -- and presumably brutal -- cross-examination.
If Valessa's defense team was truly not going to call her, it was a puzzling decision. Athan's opening statement had seemed to promise so much. She had spoken of Valessa's vulnerability, her tangle of feelings for her mother and for Adam, her personal experiences and emotions. These were details, it seemed, that could come only from Valessa herself.
Why would her lawyers not call her? Perhaps they worried that Valessa would not play well on the stand. Perhaps they feared the prosecution would demolish her. Or maybe it was something else:
Three handwritten diaries that lay inside a sealed court file.
If Valessa testified, there was a chance the diaries would be made public. What was inside them? Private material that was inflammatory enough for her lawyers to ask a judge to lock them away, at least until after the trial.
The prosecutors had said they did not plan to use the journals as evidence. But last week, after the defense described Valessa as an innocent, the state made it clear that the journals might become an issue if Valessa testified.
Are the contents of those journals enough to keep Valessa off the witness stand? Or could her lawyers make an 11th-hour decision that the jury needs to hear what happened straight from Valessa herself?
The answer would come Tuesday.
The defense opens its case today. Judge J. Rogers Padgett says the jury may have the case by midday Wednesday.
- Research: John Martin. Transcription: Michael Canning.
© Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.