The trial: Day 7
The defense completed its case Tuesday. After a morning of some suspense over whether Valessa Robinson would testify, the defense announced early in the afternoon that she would not.
Defense witnesses included an LSD expert who testified about the effects of the hallucinogenic drug, and several law enforcement officials who were questioned about whether Valessa was viewed as a murder suspect in the hours immediately after her arrest.
Lead defense attorney Dee Ann Athan called to the stand Jim Iverson, the Tampa detective who led the investigation into Vicki Robinson's murder, and quizzed him on how he had advised Valessa of her right to remain silent when he interviewed her in Texas shortly after midnight on July 3, 1998.
Closing arguments in the case will come this morning. Then, after the judge gives his instructions, the jurors will retire.
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 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.
Because Valessa was only 15 at the time of the murder, she does not face the death penalty. If convicted of first-degree murder, she will automatically be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
About this special report
The St. Petersburg Times is providing 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.
The Times is seeking to give a full portrait of the circumstances surrounding the death of Vicki Robinson, and of the issues that have led so many readers to follow the case.
Back issues of this series of special reports can be purchased at Times offices throughout Tampa Bay.
By SUE CARLTON, THOMAS FRENCH
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2000
Theresa Goscinski had stolen a few hours from work to come to these closing hours of testimony. She and Vicki Robinson had been part of a close-knit group of Christian women. They called themselves Sisters in Christ. Since the murder, Goscinski had thought of Vicki every day.
Now Goscinski found herself in a frigid courtroom on a brilliant spring morning, watching Valessa Robinson on trial, accused of murdering her mother.
Goscinski knew she needed to find forgiveness for whatever it was Valessa had done. Most of Vicki's other friends felt the same. But no one found it easy. At a party recently, someone had mentioned that he had been to the jail to visit Valessa, and a few people left the room.
In her heart, Goscinski knew Vicki would have wanted her to keep caring about Valessa.
Which brought Goscinski to the courtroom Tuesday.
In the fourth row, a friend nudged her. I think Valessa's looking at you, he said.
Goscinski gave a small wave and mouthed three words across the crowded room.
"I love you," she said.
Vicki's daughter mouthed an answer back.
"I love you."
* * *
The other defense lawyers wanted Dee Ann Athan to cool down. But as Valessa's team began its most crucial day, Athan was looking for fire.
"Don't tell me to calm down. I can't calm down," she told the other attorneys before the judge and jury entered the courtroom. "I want to be edgy. No sleep will do it for you."
This was the day when the defense would present the case for Valessa. Around the courthouse, people were asking the same question over and over:
Would the defense call Valessa to the stand?
For the moment, her lawyers were not saying. The stakes were huge. Valessa faced one count of first-degree murder, one count of robbery and one count of grand theft auto. If convicted as charged, she would be ordered to spend the rest of her life in prison. If convicted of lesser charges, she could be sentenced to anywhere from 12 years to life. If acquitted, she would walk out of the courtroom with her father and friends.
The defense called its first witness, a Boston psychiatrist who specializes in the effects of hallucinogens on humans. Dr. John Halpern, a Harvard-trained physician, gave a brief history of LSD in the United States, "since it escaped from the laboratory in the late 1960s."
One hit of LSD, Dr. Halpern told the jury, lasts about eight to 10 hours. Time and space distortions are common. A person can experience two moods at once, "anxiety and bliss at the same time," he said. "Almost every emotion a person can feel is very intense."
Assistant Public Defender Lisa Campbell guided the doctor through questions about the effects of LSD. Judgment is impaired, Dr. Halpern testified, and emotional reactions can seem indifferent.
It seemed Campbell was moving toward the heart of the matter: How would LSD have affected a 15-year-old girl?
But then Campbell walked back to the defense table and huddled with the other two lawyers. After a minute, she called to the witness box. "Thank you, Dr. Halpern."
The defense had stopped short of asking the doctor directly about Valessa because the lawyers knew where it would lead. Specific questions would prompt the prosecutors to ask Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett to unseal Valessa's private journals and allow them to be used as possible evidence of her earlier drug use.
By never uttering the word "Valessa," the defense had kept the door shut.
But the state wasn't so sure. "Judge, may we approach?" prosecutor Pam Bondi asked.
"Judge," Bondi said at the bench, surrounded by all the other lawyers, " . . . he's the expert on the stand and, Judge, I believe they've opened the door for the journals based on he's saying LSD can cause an indifference. Reading her journals, she's a very indifferent person based on her past."
Campbell jumped in. "He hasn't testified or given anything at all on Ms. Robinson."
The jury had heard none of this, but it was quickly settled.
Valessa's journals -- whatever was in them -- would stay out of the courtroom.
* * *
Though Dr. Halpern testified in scientific tones about "messenger compounds" and "psychotic breaks," the drug scene that Valessa, Adam Davis and Jon Whispel had known was relatively simple.
With a few phone calls and $20, they could party.
They tapped into the same drug market used by many Tampa teenagers. When they wandered the streets of Ybor City the night after Vicki Robinson was killed, looking for drugs, they blended in easily with the crush of Saturday night trippers.
LSD is sold in three forms: liquid, paper and gel tabs. A hit costs between $5 and $10. Liquid LSD is stored in old bottles of Visine or Sweet Breath and is dropped into the eyes or onto a graham cracker or sugar cube and swallowed. Paper is usually a quarter-inch square stamped with an icon -- Jack-in-the-Box, Jesus Christ, dead red roses -- and melted in the mouth. Gel tabs are multicolored, gooey tablets that are swallowed.
Both LSD and Ecstasy, a euphoric drug also known as rolls, wheels, beans and beanie babies, are prevalent in Tampa's dance clubs. So are the clues to drug use: pacifiers or "binkies," to help the teeth stop chattering on an Ecstasy high; entrepreneurs parked outside with trunks full of $1 bottles of Zephyrhills water, to quench the thirst created by LSD and Ecstasy.
All sorts of items are believed to enhance the high: nasal inhalers for Ecstasy, orange juice for LSD.
Orange juice is what Valessa, Jon and Adam ordered at the Carrollwood Denny's hours before Vicki Robinson was murdered. When they left Denny's, they first went back to Valessa's bedroom to sit under a black light.
"I took my shirt off and we was tripping out on my shirt," Whispel later said. "And I was just tripping out on my shirt and juggling it back and forth. And Adam grabs it and Valessa turns on the light. And then he says I need bleach."
Of the three, Adam was clearly the hard-core drug user. He told the St. Petersburg Times that he was injecting cocaine before he met Valessa in the fall of 1997.
"Adam is a baser," Steffany Rodriguez, an acquaintance, told investigators. "If he can't get high, he'll go outside to an air conditioner and hop on some freon until he gets a buzz."
Jon spent about $60 a week on marijuana, a good hunk of his paycheck from Papa John's.
When Adam met Valessa, he began selling LSD near the Joffrey's coffee shop in Carrollwood, where some of Valessa's classmates from Sickles High School hung out.
Not that it was Adam who introduced drugs to the suburbs.
"That's where you get all the good stuff," says James Hardee, a friend of Valessa's who lives in rural eastern Hillsborough County. "You gotta watch out for these little bumpkins out here in the country. They're gonna take a Tylenol and scrape the name off it and pass it off as Ecstasy. Suburban kids and cops' kids, they always have the best s---."
* * *
The defense was in high gear. Witnesses were piled up outside the courtroom door, waiting to be called. There were plenty of 10-gallon hats and badges, which meant the defense had gone back to Texas for witnesses. There was a skinny tattoo artist with multiple nose rings and the words MURDER JUNKIES branded across his forehead.
Each of the waiting witnesses had crossed paths with Valessa and had something to tell.
The tattoo artist, who inked Adam and Jon that weekend in Ybor City after the murder, testified that Valessa "looked really sluggish, sickly, I guess you'd call it."
The state had only one question.
"Did you see the "A' Miss Robinson had tattooed on her hand?" the prosecutor asked.
No, the tattoo artist answered.
At the defense table, Valessa kept her hands in her lap.
The next two witnesses were a daughter and father. At Seminole Presbyterian School, from the second grade through ninth, Jennifer Larsen had been best friends with Valessa.
"Is she still your best friend?" Athan asked Jennifer.
"Yes, she is," Jennifer answered.
"Jennifer," Athan asked, "have you ever said, "I wish my mother was dead'?"
"Yes, I have," she answered.
Larsen's father, Robert, who along with his wife had purchased Valessa's clothes for the trial, testified that he had known Valessa for years. His family had taken Valessa to car races and Disney World. Athan asked Larsen if Valessa's voice on the murder confession tape sounded normal.
No, he said. She sounded "lethargic, down, not Valessa."
The next four witnesses were from Texas. A detention officer from Pecos County testified that after the arrest, Valessa was "lying in a fetal position" while waiting to be taken to a juvenile detention center.
Another witness observed Valessa "playing with her belly button."
Part of Athan's argument was that Valessa had been high on LSD at the time of her arrest. "How long had she been playing with her belly button?" the attorney asked.
"Approximately five to 10 minutes," the witness replied.
Then, in an odd twist, Athan summoned the lead homicide detective -- the man who had sat at the prosecution's table through the entire trial -- to the stand.
Hadn't the Hillsborough cops played fast and loose with this teenager's rights when they questioned her in Texas? Athan charged. Hadn't they tricked her into confessing? Didn't they only tell her about her right to remain silent afterward, once she had already told them everything they wanted to know?
"You were supposed to read her Miranda from the very beginning, weren't you?" she asked.
"No, ma'am," Iverson replied.
Athan asked Iverson to look at a dollhouse-sized model of part of the Robinson home, including Valessa's bedroom and the kitchen. It was precise down to Vicki's pink countertops. Did it look right to the detective?
"I'm not certain of the angles to the walls and the angles to the bar, but fairly accurate," he said.
She said little more about the model. Did that mean she would use it in her closing argument, perhaps to say that Jon Whispel could not possibly have seen what he claimed to have seen from the bedroom? The question, like so many others, was left hanging.
Athan turned to the cause of Vicki's death. The medical examiner had testified that Vicki suffered a fatal stab wound to the left side of her neck through the carotid artery and jugular vein.
Athan tried to draw a subtle distinction to bolster her theory that Valessa's confession was a lie to cover for what her boyfriend had done. Hadn't Valessa told the detectives that she stabbed her mother in the throat, when in fact Vicki was stabbed in the side of the neck?
Assistant State Attorney Shirley Williams was on her feet.
"Judge, I object," she said. "The only definition of throat we need to know is not this witness'."
Athan blinked. Was the prosecutor saying the jury only needed to know Valessa's definition of the word "throat"? Was the state making a comment on Valessa's right to remain silent in front of the jury?
The defense attorney was indignant.
Minutes later, when Judge Padgett declared a lunch recess, Athan was still complaining. After the judge left the room, she dictated a motion to the court reporter, putting on the record that the defense was formally moving for a mistrial.
She walked toward Chuck Robinson and his wife, seated in the front row. She was upset about the state's comment. She was also upset, she said, because the judge had expressed frustration about the time the defense's case was taking.
"He doesn't want me to put on a defense," Athan was saying.
"Why are we in such a big hurry?" asked Chuck Robinson.
"I don't know. Because we're probably talking about the next 60 years."
She meant the next 60 years of her client's life. If Valessa was convicted of first-degree murder, she would almost certainly die in prison as an old woman.
Athan walked away, fuming.
* * *
With the court in recess, the bailiffs escorted Valessa through the back door of the courtroom. Moments later, her father followed through the same door.
Later, Chuck Robinson would describe what happened next. He joined Valessa and her lawyers in an empty jury room, he said. It was time to decide, once and for all, whether Valessa would testify.
Robinson believed his daughter was innocent. He believed the detectives had manipulated her when she was vulnerable and alone. Still, after sitting through a week and a half of the trial, he had come to the conclusion that she should stay off the witness stand.
Valessa was only 17. She was already shaken, he said. What would happen when the prosecutors went after her on cross-examination, in front of a packed courtroom? Would she be able to handle it? Or would she come apart?
Robinson told his daughter he thought she shouldn't testify.
"Ultimately," he told her, "it's up to you."
Valessa agreed with her dad.
"I don't think I want to do it," she said.
* * *
At 1:16 p.m., Judge Padgett strode back into the courtroom.
The jury was not in the room. One of Valessa's lawyers, Lyann Goudie, stood up and formally asked the judge for a mistrial.
"Denied," said Padgett.
Then Goudie said the defense had an announcement.
"She is not going to testify."
With that, Padgett turned to the defendant.
"Okay, Ms. Robinson," he said. "Your attorney tells me that you do not plan to become a witness in this trial. Is that true?"
"Yes, sir," she answered.
Her voice was girlish, soft but steady.
"You understand, of course, that you do have the right to testify if you wish to do so?"
"Yes, sir, I do."
In the courtroom, people were leaning forward to hear every word.
The judge continued. "Have you had the opportunity to discuss this decision with your attorneys?"
"Yes, sir," she said, "I have."
"And with your father?"
"Is it your decision not to testify?"
"Yes, sir, it is."
"Are you comfortable with that decision?"
"And are you going to hold that decision against me, or Ms. Athan, or Ms. Campbell, or Ms. Goudie at some time in the future?"
"No," she said. "No, sir."
That was it.
It was Valessa's constitutional right. The jurors had already been told that they could not hold such a decision against her. Still, it was hard not to want more. What was her version of the events the night her mother died? What had been her role? How had it happened?
Valessa's only answer would be silence.
* * *
The rest of the day swept by.
The defense quickly finished with its witnesses, and then the state called one last witness of its own, a neuro-ophthalmologist who had been summoned out of a nearby operating room -- literally -- to testify. Still in his blue scrubs, with his shoes wrapped in surgical baggies, Dr. Craig Munger took the witness stand.
"Are you familiar with eyes becoming dilated?" asked Pam Bondi.
"Yes, ma'am," said the doctor.
"Approximately 12 hours after ingestion of LSD, would that cause someone's eyes to become dilated?"
"No, ma'am. It's unlikely."
Lisa Campbell stood up for the defense. She showed Dr. Munger a photo of Valessa taken early on July 3, 1998, about 12 hours after she allegedly had swallowed several hits of LSD. Did the doctor, the lawyer asked, agree that Valessa's eyes appeared dilated in the picture? They could be, he said, but probably not from LSD.
What if Valessa had taken as many as five hits of the drug just before she was taken into custody? Would that make a difference?
"It would be unlikely," he said.
The trial was over for the day.
Judge Padgett sent the jurors home, telling them that they would hear closing arguments at 9 a.m. Wednesday. After that, the case would be theirs to decide.
The lawyers headed for their offices. They had the afternoon and the evening to plot out their final arguments.
For the defense, the closing would be especially important. Without hearing Valessa's version, the jurors would undoubtedly be eager to hear whatever her attorneys had to say. What had been proved? What had not been proved? When the jurors began their deliberations Wednesday afternoon, what should they remember about Valessa?
It would be up to her lawyers to tell them.
* * *
On Tuesday, Amber Englert sat unobtrusively in the back of the courtroom and watched and listened.
Amber, the 18-year-old daughter of Jim Englert, Vicki's boyfriend, did not really know Valessa. She and Valessa, she said, had never spent much time together. But she remembered Vicki well.
"She was a nurturer," Amber said after the day's testimony ended. "She was just a bright ball of walking fire."
Amber said she was praying for Valessa. She expressed no anger or judgment. Someday, she said, she hoped to be able to forgive.
Just the day before, she had finished writing a paper on the case. It was for a psychology class at St. Petersburg Junior College.
At the end of the paper, Amber offered her theories on what had led to Vicki's murder. She talked about the influence of the media, the effects of video games, the consequences of making the wrong friends.
None of it was enough.
Why did this happen?
"I have no idea," she said, standing outside the courtroom. "I'm totally lost when it comes to figuring out why."
Closing arguments by the prosecution and the defense will be made this morning.
- Research: John Martin. Transcription: Michael Canning.
© Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.