Parents awarded $150 billion seek justice for son's death
Updated 12:31 am, Thursday, December 22, 2011
Colleen and Robert Middleton don't expect to collect a dime of the $150 billion a civil jury awarded them this week in the death of their son.
They just want the person they say is responsible for his death - linked to a vicious attack when he was doused in gasoline and turned into a human torch on his 8th birthday - to be brought to trial. Frustrated at prosecutors' decision to drop the 1998 assault case, the family sought justice - and public awareness - in the civil courts.
Robbie Middleton died earlier this year from a type of cancer caused from skin grafts required for the burns, but jurors in the civil trial were able to hear this week his videotaped testimony of what happened to him in the Montgomery County village of Splendora 13 years ago.
In the videotape, Middleton - his features badly scarred and distorted by the gasoline fire that burned everything except the bottom of his feet - continued to name his attacker as Donald W. Collins. He also testified that Collins, who was 13 at the time of the attack, had sexually assaulted him two weeks earlier.
A plea for justice
In the videotaped testimony, Middleton begged the jury hearing his wrongful death civil lawsuit to give him the justice that he'd never received in life. Middleton died in April, just shy of his 20th birthday.
The jury answered Tuesday by ordering Collins to pay the largest damage award that anyone can recall - $150 billion.
Both Middleton's parents, Colleen and Robert, and their attorney, Craig Sico of Corpus Christi, have been perplexed by Montgomery County officials' allowing the case to remain dormant.
"I have never been able to find out why the complaints against Collins were dropped in 2000 and never again pursued," said Colleen Middleton. "The investigators wouldn't talk to me. I hope David Walker will do something."
Walker, the Montgomery County Attorney, said Wednesday that prosecutors have been reviewing the case since the summer, after Middleton's attorney submitted a recording of Robbie Middleton's testimony.
Walker became responsible for the case a year after the complaint against Collins was dropped. Collins, who has denied any wrongdoing, was detained in a juvenile facility for six months after Middleton was attacked in the woods near Splendora.
A year later, Bill Pattillo, then the lead prosecutor for the Montgomery county attorney, announced he was dropping all the complaints against Collins, stating that he wanted to "wait" until Middleton grew healthy enough to testify.
Yet 13 years later, nothing has happened. Middleton's parents complain prosecutors have been secretive and failed to explain why.
Sico said he believes prosecutors now have sufficient evidence to file murder charges, because Middleton's death would never have occurred if he had not been burned.
Sico also believes sufficient evidence exists to prove Collins responsible for the death besides Middleton's testimony. He noted investigators are reported to have a burned shirt with flammable liquids on it that belonged to Collins and that Collins gave a statement admitting culpability.
Walker, however, said he has not been told about "anything so dramatic as a burned shirt" in the evidence file.
"There was a statement from Collins, but it was not a confession. More of a reference admitting that he'd been in the area where it happened," said Walker.
Also, the file reflects Middleton initially named more than one attacker and that he was confused by so much pain and the drugs he was taking, Walker said.
Molested another boy
Prosecutors had initially thought the motive for the attack had been that Middleton had witnessed Collins molesting a 5-year-old relative and accused Collins of stealing fireworks.
Collins was later convicted of molesting another 8-year-old boy three years after Middleton said he was assaulted. He was sentenced to four years in juvenile detention.
What worries Middleton's mother now is that Collins, now 26, is scheduled to be released from prison in September for twice failing to register as a sex offender after that attack.
"He won't be living next-door to me like he did before," said Colleen Middleton, who is now attending college in Seattle. "But he will be somebody else's neighbor. I worry that he wants to get out there and be secretive where he can attack another unsuspecting child."
Collins did not attend or present any defense at the civil trial and could not be reached for comment.