Eleven years into a life sentence for killing his girlfriend's daughter, Neil Robbins might be granted a new trial.
After hearing arguments this morning from Robbins's attorney, Brian Wice, and Montgomery County District Attorney Bill Delmore, District Court Judge Michael Mayes concluded that Robbins was convicted solely on the testimony of a state expert witness that later proved to be false.
At issue is the recantation of the Harris County Medical Examiner who conducted the autopsy of 17-month-old Tristen Skye Rivet, who died in 1997. Patricia Moore had testified in Robbins's 1999 trial that the child's death was a homicide by asphyxiation. But in 2007, after a friend of Robbins urged the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office to review the case, Deputy Chief Dwayne Wolf amended Moore's finding, changing manner of death from homicide to "undetermined." Moore -- who by that time was no longer with the office -- agreed with Wolf's finding. (Moore's supervisors also had to revise at least two other autopsies she conducted).
Mayes shredded Moore's performance in the 1999 trial, calling her testimony "expert fiction calculated to attain a criminal conviction."
Mayes concluded that when Moore conducted the child's autopsy, "she was an inexperienced and overworked associate medical examiner whose pro-law enforcement findings in several cases involving the deaths of small children were ultimately changed by her superiors....Moore was not competent at the time of trial to offer objective and pathologically sound opinions as to cause and manner of death in this case. Her level of inexperience at the time of trial and her bias at that time toward the state are now evident."
After medical examiners revised their findings in 2007, then-Montgomery County District Attorney Mike McDougal agreed that the findings were enough to warrant a new trial. But when McDougal lost the 2008 election to Brett Ligon, the agreement came off the table.
Assistant District Attorney Bill Delmore argued this morning that the revised autopsy findings did not meet the legal standard for "newly available evidence." He also said the trial jury heard from defense witneses who refuted Moore's findings, giving them enough competing evidence to weigh.
But Mayes ultimately agreed with Wice's argument that Moore's testimony was the "linchpin" of the state's case against Robbins.
Speaking to reporters after Mayes's ruling, Wice said "I think I'm kind of speechless...I have never been more proud to be a lawyer, and I have never been more proud of the criminal justice system than I am today." He said it could take as long as a year before the Court of Criminal Appeals reviews the case.
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Fighting tears, Robbins's brother Brandon Lee Robbins referred to family members who died while Robbins was incarcerated.
"I wish that his mother and grandmother could be here right now," he said.
On May 12, 1997, Tristen Rivet was living with her mother, Barbara Hope, and Robbins in Robbins's mother's Spring home. That morning, Hope and Robbins's mother left the home, leaving Rivet alone with Robbins, despite the fact that the child had suffered injuries -- including a bruised face -- while in Robbins's care on at least three occasions. (Robbins also had a visit from his parole officer that day; he had been convicted of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and auto theft).
When the two women returned in the afternoon, Robbins said he had put Rivet down for a nap. When Hope checked on her daughter several hours later, she saw that Trivet wasn't breathing and her body was cold. Hope and several neighbors performped CPR on Rivet; Robbins's trial attorney argued that the bruises found on Rivet's chest and stomach could have been from compressions administered during the unsuccessful CPR.