Texan pleads not guilty in death of boyhood victim
CONROE, Texas (AP) — The family of a boy who died 13 years after being burned in a gasoline attack will have to wait at least six more months before the person charged with murder will face a jury, as a judge Thursday set a January trial date.
But Colleen Middleton, whose son was burned across 99 percent of his body, said she and her family don’t mind waiting for a few more months to get what they hope will be justice.
“Six months is nothing. We’ve waited sixteen years,” she said.
Authorities allege that in 1998 at age 13, Don Willburn Collins doused Robert Middleton with gasoline and set him on fire on his eighth birthday. The attack occurred near the younger boy’s home in Splendora, about 35 miles northeast of Houston.
Middleton endured years of physical therapy before he died in 2011, shortly before his 21st birthday, from skin cancer blamed on the horrific burns he suffered.
Collins, who is jailed on a $1 million bond and was in handcuffs and leg shackles for Thursday’s court appearance, pleaded not guilty during his arraignment hearing.
Jerald Crow, one of Collins’ attorneys, said he would need six months to get ready for trial.
State District Judge Kathleen Hamilton scheduled the trial for Jan. 5.
Collins had spent several months in juvenile detention in 1998 after Middleton named him as his attacker. But he was released after prosecutors said they didn’t have enough evidence to pursue the case.
Shortly before he died, Middleton gave a videotaped deposition in which he accused Collins for the first time of sexually assaulting him two weeks before the attack. The sexual assault allegation prompted investigators to reopen the case and file a murder charge last year.
Collins was indicted last month, after Hamilton ruled in March that the case could be transferred from juvenile to adult court.
Hamilton determined that Collins could be tried in adult court because prosecutors had been unable to proceed with the case before his 18th birthday, but that new evidence had been found since then.
If Collins had been certified to stand trial as an adult when he was a juvenile, his maximum sentence would have been 40 years. It has not been determined yet what maximum sentence Collins will face.
Collins’ attorneys have said they plan to ask for a change of venue and will present evidence at the trial of his history of mental disability.
Phil Grant, first assistant district attorney for Montgomery County, said he is confident that if a change of venue is granted, his office “will be able to present this case wherever we are in Texas.”
Colleen Middleton said she is not worried if the trial is moved to another county.
“The truth is going to be the truth, no matter where we go,” she said.
Collins also faces a charge in neighboring San Jacinto County of failing to register as a sex offender.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70