AG's opinion still leaves questions in Montgomery County case
Updated 12:10 am, Saturday, September 15, 2012
Montgomery County prosecutors have the discretion to bring charges against a Splendora man in connection with a crime he is suspected of committing when he was 13, the Texas attorney general said Friday.
The opinion from Greg Abbott was not exactly what Montgomery County Attorney David Walker sought. He, as well as criminal defense attorneys, wanted Abbott to determine whether Donald Collins, now 27, could legally face a murder charge in the death last year of the boy he is accused of dousing with gasoline and setting on fire 14 years ago.
Collins has been accused of torching Robbie Middleton on his eighth birthday. Prosecutors filed charges shortly after the 1998 incident, but they were later dismissed.
Middleton died last year. Collins was released from prison in August after serving time for another crime.
In April, Walker asked Abbott to decide whether prosecutors could constitutionally still proceed with charges against Collins.
At the time Middleton was attacked, juveniles had to be 14 to be cer- tified to be tried as an adult.
Though someone now can be certified as young as 10, Walker said the courts may see holding Collins to the lower age standard as retroactive and unconstitutional.
Back to beginning
If prosecutors couldn't bring Collins to trial as an adult that way, then Walker asked whether a crime was committed when Middleton died, when Collins was an adult.
Middleton was left badly disfigured after he was turned into a human torch. He developed a cancer that only comes from enduring multiple, painful skin grafts for serious burns. His death last year was ruled a homicide.
Walker said Friday that Abbott's opinion was frustrating.
Given no clear direction by the attorney general, Walker said he will meet with District Attorney Brett Ligon on Monday to decide how to proceed.
"We're basically back where we were before asking for Greg Abbott's opinion," said Walker.
Abbott said prosecutors ultimately have "great discretion" on deciding what should be prosecuted.
Ligon is anxious to meet with Walker, but the decision is the county attorney's.
"My office must stand aside until Walker decides whether to ask a judge to move this case from juvenile court over to me in district court," Ligon said.
'Nothing to lose'
Middleton's mother, Colleen, thinks prosecutors should move forward and finally give her son the justice that he has long deserved.
"They have nothing to lose by trying," she said. "And locking Collins up could protect his next young victim."
A civil jury awarded the Middletons a $150 billion wrongful death judgment against Collins last year. Their attorney, Greg Sico, said they never expected to collect a dime but wanted to draw attention to their son's case.
"Prosecutors can and should now move forward," said Sico. "It's time for Walker to get off the fence and play the game."
Collins, who now lives north of Houston in Cleveland, could not be reached for comment.
He was recently released from prison, where he had been incarcerated for failing to register as a sex offender.
At age 16, Collins was convicted of sexually assaulting a different 8-year-old boy. Before Robert Middleton died, he gave a videotaped statement in which for the first time he accused Collins of sexually assaulting him a few days before setting him on fire.
Ignoring settled law?
Criminal defense lawyers criticized the Attorney General's office for failing to take a stand on the legal issues.
He said the opinion ignores settled law, including the common law rule that a victim has to die within a year and a day of the act to be charged with murder.
"If they live longer than that, you really can't consider that the cause of death with any specificity," he said.
"Also, the law is chosen at the time of the offense, so he has to be tried as a juvenile, and under the law as it existed at the time."
Brian Rogers contributed to this report.