A Texas man accused of dousing a boy with gasoline and setting him on fire when he was a teenager can be tried as an adult for murder after the victim died from his burns nearly 13 years later, a judge has ruled.
Authorities allege that Don Willburn Collins was 13 when he attacked Robert Middleton in 1998 on his eighth birthday near the younger boy's home northeast of Houston. Middleton was burned across 99 per cent of his body and endured years of physical therapy before he died in 2011 from skin cancer blamed on his burns.
Colleen Middleton, Robert's mother, said she was relieved the case would go to trial.
"When Robert died we were thinking maybe nothing will ever happen, maybe someone is just going to get away with what they did to him," she said. "It's been a long road."
Robert Middleton named Collins as his attacker and the older boy was arrested in 1998. Collins spent several months in juvenile detention but was released after prosecutors said they didn't have enough evidence to pursue the case.
Shortly before he died, Middleton gave a videotaped deposition in which he accused Collins for the first time of sexually assaulting him two weeks before the attack. The sexual assault allegation prompted investigators to reopen the case. Prosecutors charged the now 28-year-old Collins with murder last year, but they needed to move the case from juvenile to adult court to take him to trial.
After a three-day hearing on the issue this week, state District Judge Kathleen Hamilton ruled that Colllins could be tried for murder by an adult court.
Several witnesses testified at the hearing that Collins had confessed to them or others that he was responsible for the attack on Middleton. Part of Middleton's taped deposition also was shown.
Collins was convicted in a separate case of sexually assaulting another 8-year-old boy. Now an adult, the victim testified this week that Collins had threatened to burn him if he told anybody what happened.
Collins' attorney, E Tay Bond, had argued that moving the case to adult court would violate his client's constitutional rights. Bond questioned the reliability of Middleton's statements, as well as secondhand statements made by other witnesses, saying there was "no new credible evidence".
Bond argued that the case should not be transferred to adult court because in 1998, a juvenile had to be at least 14 years old for a capital felony offence case to be transferred to adult court. The law was changed in 1999 to lower that age to 10.
Prosecutors said the murder didn't take place until 2011, well after the law was changed. But Bond said the law shouldn't be applied retroactively to Collins.
Bond said after Thursday's ruling that he plans to "vigorously defend" Collins at trial.
"There is no physical evidence that links Don Collins to this case," Bond repeated. "There are no eyewitnesses."
Once the trial concludes, Collins has the option of appealing both Hamilton's ruling and any conviction in Middleton's death.
Montgomery County Attorney JD Lambright called the ruling a "tremendous victory" for the Middleton family. He said the prosecution will now be turned over to the county District Attorney's Office, which will try to indict Collins. Lambright's office is responsible for matters involving juveniles.
Collins, who is being held on a US$1 million (NZ$1.18m) bond, remained jailed as he faced up to 10 years in prison for a charge in neighbouring San Jacinto County of failing to register as a sex offender.
In 2011 a Texas jury awarded a record US$150 billion in punitive damages to the parents and estate of Middleton.
The largely symbolic award is reportedly the biggest personal-injury award from a jury in US history. The previous record, according to Bloomberg News, was a US$145 billion award — later reversed — in a Florida class-action suit against the tobacco industry.
Colleen and Bobby Ray Middleton filed the civil lawsuit against their son’s alleged attacker.
A jury in La Grange, Texas, west of Houston, found in the Middletons’ favour, ordering Collins to pay them US$370 million in actual damages, according to their attorney, Craig Sico, who spoke with the Los Angeles Times. The jury was able to address damages after a district judge issued a partial summary judgment on liability in September 2011.
Middleton was sexually assaulted June 14, 1998, and was set on fire on his birthday two weeks later, Sico said.
In the second attack, Middleton had just received a tent as a birthday gift and was walking to a friend’s house to try it out. His assailant caught up with him in woods near his family’s home in Splendora, about 35 miles northeast of Houston, Sico said. The attacker threw a cup of gasoline in Middleton’s face, tied him to a tree with fishing line, poured more gasoline on him and set him on fire, Sico said.
As the plastic fishing line melted, Middleton was able to escape, and neighbours found him collapsed at the edge of the woods, Sico said.
- AP, MCT