Almost 17 years after a young boy was doused with gasoline and set on fire, a jury has found a convicted child rapist guilty of capital murd*er.
Testimony indicated Don Collins, who was only 13 years old at the time, at*tacked Robbie Middleton in an attempt to silence him two weeks after sexually assaulting him.
Middleton survived despite suffering burns over 99 percent of his body. After enduring more than 150 surgeries and more than a decade of agonizing physical therapy at the Shriners Burn Hospital in Galveston, Middleton contracted a form of cancer linked to his skin grafts and died when he was 20 years old.
“He would be extremely happy, because he was so afraid that Mr. Collins would harm another child,” said Colleen Middleton, the victim’s mother, after the verdict. “So he would be extremely happy.”
Prosecutors — who described the Collins, now 29, as “a child rapist, a mu*rderer and a monster” — argued the cancer was caused by the skin grafts necessitated by the burns inflicted by Collins.
Testimony painted a picture of Collins as a serial child molester who later intimidated boys by bragging about setting Middleton on fire.
Collins showed no emotion and his attorney said he wasn’t surprised when the verdict was announced.
Jurors saw part of a video deposition in which the severely burned Middleton, speaking from his deathbed 17 days before he died, recounted how Collins had rap*ed him and later set him on fire.
They were also shown an interview conducted by a KHOU-TV photographer in which Collins, speaking at the scene of the at*tack, offered suspiciously specific details of the cr*ime and admitted he had been playing with fire.
In the courtroom, Collins paid little attention to the video showing Middleton on his deathbed, sitting with his back turned to the projection screen and reading a newspaper as the dying burn victim described the att*acks.
Although Collins was charged with the cri*me in 1998, the case didn’t go to trial because prosecutors said their case wasn’t strong enough to win a conviction.
But after Middleton’s death in 2011 was ruled a homicide, prosecutors filed capital mu*rder charges.
“Today, that little boy gets to hit back,” said Rob Freyer, the lead prosecutor in the case, during his closing argument.
Defense attorneys argued against trying Collins as an adult for a cr*ime he committed when he was 13 years old.
At the time, the maximum age for adult certification was 14, but in 1999 the state of Texas lowered that age to 10. Prosecutors argued that because Middleton died in 2011, the lower certification age applied to Collins.
“It’s absolutely unconstitutional, in our opinion,” said E. Tay Bond, Collins’ lawyer. “We made our arguments. The judge disagreed. And it’ll be the number one issue on appeal.”
The defense emphasized the victim named a number of suspects as his att*acker. But his mother dismissed those allegations, saying her son was so delirious in the months after the at*tack he blamed his burns on everything from neighborhood dogs to his grandmother’s coffee. After he became lucid, she said, he consistently blamed the cr*ime on Collins.
Defense attorneys argued there were no eyewitnesses to the c*rime and no physical evidence linking Collins to the at*tack.
The prosecution’s case was bolstered by a number of witnesses who said they heard Collins boast about setting Middleton on fire, sometimes to frighten other boys at a juvenile detention center.
One of those witnesses testified Collins had ra*ped him when he was 8 years old, then threatened to set him on fire if he reported the assault.
The victim’s mother described hearing the verdict as “surreal,” but she hopes it isn’t the end of the case. Testimony indicated Middleton believed he was at*tacked not only by Collins, but also by an adult who he heard but didn’t see.
“I’m afraid that we’ll never know who was on the trail with Mr. Collins, because I believe — and I was told by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office — that there was someone else on the trail with him,” Colleen Middleton said. “And I want to know who that was.”
State District Judge Kathleen Hamilton moved the Montgomery County trial to Galveston because of pre-trial publicity.
Now jurors must decade upon punishment. Collins, who is already jailed for failing to register as a sex offender in connection with raping the victim who testified against him, could face up to 40 years in prison.