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Neal Robbins

Other Texas Murder Cases with False/Misleading Forensic Evidence
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On May 12, 1998, 17-month-old Tristen Rivet was found unconscious in her crib in Montgomery County, Texas. Tristen’s mother, Barbara Hope, took the child out to the lawn and began performing CPR. While waiting for emergency personnel, Hope stuck a finger down the girl’s throat to try to open the airway and she and several neighbors attempted to resuscitate Tristen.

The girl was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at a hospital.

A month later, Hope’s boyfriend, 23-year-old Neal Robbins, who lived in the home and had watched over Tristen that day, was arrested and charged with capital murder.

Robbins went to trial in Montgomery County Criminal District Court in February 1999. Testimony indicated that while Robbins and Hope had a stormy relationship and both suffered from depression, Tristen and Robbins had a good relationship. The prosecution presented witnesses who testified that in the months prior to Tristen’s death, Robbins began taking pain medication following a serious car accident and became more volatile.

Beginning in November 1997, Tristen suffered injuries on three separate occasions while in Robbins’s care, including bruises under the eye, an injury to her leg and several bruises across her face.

Hope testified that on the day of Tristen’s death, she and her mother, Bonni Morris, left the house at 11:30 a.m. to run errands and left Tristen with Robbins. Robbins’s parole officer visited the home from about 1:30 to 2 p.m. and reported that Tristen was walking around, eating animal crackers and at one point, Robbins gave her some red punch. Robbins’s brother came by as well and left around 2:20 p.m. and Tristen was fine.

Robbins paged Hope between 3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. and when Hope called him, he sounded “shaky” and “excited” and told her to hurry home because he “had to go and had things to do.”

Hope testified that she and her mother arrived home between 4 and 4:30 p.m. Robbins said he had put Tristen down for a nap after Hope’s earlier call. They walked to a nearby store, arguing about his absences, and she returned home where her mother was talking on the phone.

At about 5:40 p.m., Hope said she checked on Tristen and believed she was asleep. At 6 p.m., Hope went to wake Tristen and saw that the girl’s lips were blue, her body was cold, and she was not breathing.

Morris called 911 and Hope carried Tristen into the living room and tried to breathe into the girl’s mouth. When a pink fluid discharged from the girl’s mouth and nose, Hope stuck a finger down the girl’s throat to attempt to dislodge anything that may have been there and then took the girl outside and placed her on the lawn to administer CPR.

Morris blew into the girl’s mouth while a neighbor’s daughter, Pamela Garrison, pushed upon the child’s abdomen three or four times. Another neighbor, Jackie Sullivan, who had previously worked as an emergency medical technician, joined the scene and told Morris and Garrison to stop because they were performing CPR too forcefully, considering the girl’s small stature. Sullivan told them that they would kill the child if she were not already dead. She attempted to perform CPR with two fingers, but she suspected the child was in fact dead.

Paramedics arrived and inserted a breathing tube after several unsuccessful attempts and continued to perform additional CPR on Tristen on the way to a hospital. Tristen arrived at the hospital at 6:36 p.m. and was pronounced dead at 6:53 p.m.

Dr. Patricia Moore, an assistant medical examiner for the Harris County Medical Examiner’s office, testified that she performed an autopsy and concluded, based on several contusions on Tristen’s back as well as areas of discoloration on her arm, face, and neck, that Tristen had died of suffocation by compression. Moore said she found internal hemorrhages as well. Moore told the jury that she ruled out CPR as the cause of death because the injuries to the back were inconsistent with resuscitation efforts and because the internal hemorrhages were caused by application of considerably more force than typical CPR efforts.

The defense called Dr. Robert Bux, the deputy chief medical examiner for Bexar County, who testified that the cause of death could not be determined. He said the injuries cited by Moore could well have been the result of CPR efforts. Bux also testified that EKG reports showed some electrical activity after 5:30 p.m., evidence that he said indicated the child was still alive after Robbins left the home.

Robbins testified on his own behalf and said that he had done nothing to harm Tristen. He said he had never struck her, disciplined her, or even raised his voice to her. He admitted Tristen had suffered some minor injuries due to his “carelessness,” and also conceded his relationship with Hope was turbulent.

The prosecution, in rebuttal, called a physician who was in the emergency room when Tristen was brought in and who testified that there was no electrical activity at the hospital. A clinical manager for emergency medical services in the Montgomery County Hospital district examined the EKG readings and testified that any electrical activities were attributable to the CPR that was in progress.

On February 22, 1999, the jury convicted Robbins of capital murder and he was sentenced to life in prison.

In March 2007, an acquaintance of Robbins asked the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office to review Moore’s finding of the cause of Tristen’s death. The deputy chief medical examiner, Dr. Dwayne Wolf, re-evaluated the autopsy findings and concluded that the autopsy did not support a finding of death by asphyxiation by compression. Wolf amended the autopsy report to say that the cause and manner of death was “undetermined.”

As a result, the inquest into Tristen’s death was formally re-opened and shortly thereafter, former Harris County Medical Examiner Joye Carter—who had been Moore’s supervisor at the time Moore conducted the autopsy - reviewed the case and in a May 10 letter to the Montgomery County District Attorney said she would consider the case as “undetermined” as well.

The prosecution asked Moore to review the case and in a May 13 letter to the prosecution, Moore said that while she believed the death was suspicious, “having had more experience in the field of forensic pathology, I now feel that an opinion for a cause and manner of death of undetermined…is best for this case.”

Moore said that in the ensuing nearly 10 years, she had had more experience and had reviewed additional information that suggested the bruises could have resulted from aggressive CPR, particularly by untrained individuals, and other efforts to save the child.

In June 2007, Robbins filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus seeking to vacate his conviction on the basis of Moore’s recantation of her original finding of death by homicide. The prosecution initially recommended that Robbins be granted a new trial, but in August 2007, instead of signing findings agreed upon by the defense and prosecution, the trial court appointed Dr. Thomas Wheeler, chairman of the Department of Pathology at Baylor College of Medicine to conduct an independent examination of Tristen’s death.

In September 2007, Wheeler concluded, in a letter to the court, that the death was “undetermined” and that Moore’s original conclusion was “not justified by the objective facts and pathological findings in this case.”

The following month, the trial court ordered another pathologist, Linda Norton, to conduct an independent examination. Norton reported in a telephone conference in March 2008 that she concluded the death was a homicide by suffocation. The trial court amended Tristen’s death certificate to say death was caused by asphyxiation by suffocation instead of compression.

By May 2008, the prosecution was no longer willing to recommend that a new trial be granted, but agreed not to oppose Robbins’s request for a new trial. The prosecution said that the “cause of death remains asphyxiation.”

Ultimately, after prolonged legal wrangling over taking depositions of the medical experts (Norton was never deposed), the trial court, in 2010, recommended to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that Robbins be granted a new trial.

In June 2011, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals by a vote of 5-4 denied Robbins’s request for a new trial, ruling that Robbins had “failed to establish that newly available evidence has unquestionably established his innocence…and (had not) proven that the state used false testimony” to obtain the conviction.

In 2013, the Texas Legislature enacted a law specifically to cover Robbins’s case. The law allowed courts to grant a new trial where scientific testimony that was essential to a conviction had been contradicted.

Robbins’s lawyer, Brian Wice, filed another state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus, citing the new law and claiming that he was entitled to a new trial because the scientific evidence relied upon at trial had been contradicted by “relevant scientific evidence that was unavailable at trial.” Again the trial court recommended that Robbins be granted a new trial.

In January 2016, the Court of Criminal Appeals, based on the new law, granted Robbins a new trial and rejected the prosecution’s argument that the defense had presented evidence contradicting Moore at trial and so therefore, the same evidence that the death was “undetermined” was available at the time.

“We disagree,” the appeals court said. “It has changed. Moore’s re-evaluated opinion on the cause of death contradicts the evidence relied on by the state at trial and was not available at that time because she re-evaluated years after the trial ended.”

The court said, “Finally, we find on the preponderance of the evidence that, had this evidence been presented at trial, (Robbins) would not have ben convicted.” The appeals court remanded the case for a new trial.

On August 18, 2016, the prosecution dismissed the charge and Robbins was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/23/2016
State:Texas
County:Montgomery
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1998
Convicted:1999
Exonerated:2016
Sentence:Life
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:23
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No