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Montgomery prosecutors seek to try murder suspect as an adult

Cindy Horswel, Houston Chronicle
Updated 10:34 pm, Tuesday, September 18, 2012

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  • A yearbook photo of Don Collins, the key suspect who was 13 at the time when Robbie Middleton was burned in Montgomery County. Photo: . / handout

    A yearbook photo of Don Collins, the key suspect who was 13 at the time when Robbie Middleton was burned in Montgomery County.

    Photo: .

 

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Montgomery County prosecutors agreed Tuesday to finally seek the justice that Robbie Middleton, severely disfigured from being set on fire as a boy, had so desperately wanted before he died last year.

County attorney David Walker filed court documents Tuesday in juvenile Judge Kathleen Hamilton's court that officially accuse 27-year-old Don Collins of murdering Middleton.

In addition, Walker has asked the judge to transfer the murder case from her court to district court so that Collins, who was age 13 at the time of the assault, can be prosecuted as an adult.

Walker must now provide evidence at a hearing before Hamilton that Collins doused Middleton with gasoline and set him ablaze when he walked down a wooded path on his eighth birthday in 1998. Walker must also explain the reason for the long delay in bringing charges.

The belated filing has sparked constitutional questions about the legality of charging someone who is an adult for crimes allegedly committed when they were a juvenile.

A medical examiner has ruled that 20-year-old Middleton's death was a homicide. That's because he succumbed to a type of cancer that can only come from enduring hundreds of painful skin grafts for serious burns.

Middleton's mother, Colleen, was elated by the prosecutor's decision to finally proceed to trial.

"My son will finally have his day in court," she said. "Robbie was always afraid his attacker would harm another kid who would end up in the hospital like him."

Walker took over as county attorney a year after initial juvenile charges filed against Collins were dismissed after the incident. Walker mistakenly thought that was done because of insufficient evidence.

But after sheriff's detectives reviewed the cold case last year, Walker discovered adequate evidence was in the files all along. This included statements by Collins and other witnesses who saw what happened.

Collins, now living in Cleveland, could not be reached for comment.

Three years after Middleton was tied to a tree and set on fire, Collins was convicted of sexually assaulting another 8-year-old boy.

In addition, Collins was recently released from prison after serving time for failing to register as a sex offender.

Middleton underwent more than 200 surgeries after the flames melted his skin. His hearing and eyesight were also left severely impaired.

"He had a happy-go-lucky personality," said his mother. "His goal had been to become a wildlife rehabilitator."

To keep attention on her son's case after his death, Middleton's parents won a $150 billion civil judgement against Collins for the wrongful death of their son.

Collins was then in prison and did not attend the civil trial. Middleton testified by a videotape recording before he died in which he not only accused Collins of setting him on fire but also disclosed for the first time that he'd been sexually assaulted, too.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a ruling Friday that declined to rule on the constitutional questions involved with the belated charges, leaving it up to prosecutorial discretion.

Walker foresees the possibility of a constitutional challenge by whomever represents Collins.

"This case could end up making some new case law," Walker said. Collins is being notified by a summons of the pending proceedings in Hamilton's court. A warrant won't be issued for his arrest unless his case is moved to district court and a grand jury there indicts him, Walker said.

cindy.horswell@chron.com