This piece originally appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on April 22, 2000.
TAMPA—The night before the verdict, Valessa Robinson’s lawyers hit Burdines.
Dee Ann Athan, Lyann Goudie and Lisa Campbell, the three assistant public defenders battling for their young client’s future, swept through the second floor of the department store at WestShore Plaza around 7 Thursday.
The trio of lawyers stood out among the other shoppers. They kept huddling and whispering. They moved like women on a mission, scanning the racks.
“Oh, I think she’d like this,” said one of them, holding up an outfit.
A few minutes later, they made their pick: a baby pink sweater set.
Then they hurried from the store.
* * *
The beginning of the Easter weekend had left most of the courthouse’s rooms and hallways darkened Friday. But not the third floor and Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett’s courtroom.
Vicki Robinson’s mother stepped off the elevator. Donna Klug was wearing a pale suit, the last of the outfits she had packed when she and her husband had left their home in Michigan weeks ago. By now they had a stack of dirty laundry in their hotel room.
“This high,” said Mrs. Klug, her hand at her waist.
Valessa’s trial had lasted longer than anyone expected. Now, after two weeks, the case appeared to be teetering on the brink of a mistrial. The night before, the jurors had sent the judge a note saying they were deadlocked. The judge sent them back to their hotel to sleep on it.
A mistrial would give Valessa’s lawyers a second chance with a different jury. As the three of them gathered in the courtroom Friday, they seemed re-energized.
In a matter of minutes, Padgett punctured their mood. The judge announced that he intended to revisit a question the jurors had asked two days earlier, in their first hours of deliberations. If a person is determined to be a principal in a crime, the jurors had wanted to know, is that person guilty of the crime?
The question went to the heart of the prosecution’s case. If Valessa was found to be a principal in her mother’s murder—that is, if she encouraged or helped the killer—the law considered her just as guilty.
On Wednesday, Padgett hadn’t answered the jurors’ question. Instead, he had simply repeated an instruction explaining the principal theory.
Now the judge wanted to answer their question straight out. If the jurors believed Valessa was a principal in the murder, then yes, she was guilty.
“These people are entitled to a meaningful answer,” Padgett said.
Valessa’s attorneys were livid. The judge was about to tell the jury something that could seal a verdict of first-degree murder and send Valessa to prison for the rest of her life.
Lead attorney Dee Ann Athan slumped into her chair. The other defense lawyers began to argue.
The judge folded his hands. He listened patiently until they were done, calmly denied the objections, then asked the bailiff to bring in the jury.
Lyann Goudie turned away from the judge.
“At this point, we should all just go home,” she said.
Padgett had had enough. He stopped the bailiff from bringing in the jury, then turned to the defense attorneys.
“You know better than to say something like that with the cameras rolling,” he said. “Who said it? You, Ms. Goudie?”
“Yes, I did,” she said.
“Do you want me to hold you in contempt?”
“Judge,” Goudie answered, “that’s your prerogative.”
Padgett told her that there would be a contempt hearing later.
“That’s fine,” Goudie said.
Finally, the jurors were brought in. The judge first gave them an instruction called the Allen Charge, encouraging them to keep trying for a verdict.
“I have only one request of you,” he read. “By law, I cannot demand this of you.”
Take turns, he said. Tell your fellow jurors about any weaknesses in your position. Don’t interrupt until everyone has had a chance to speak. After all that, if you still cannot agree on a unanimous verdict, I will declare a mistrial.
That finished, the judge returned to the principal question. He told the jurors that he had not fully answered it for them two days before. He tried again.
“Now, if you have considered each of the instructions and if you have weighed all of the evidence in accord with those instructions, then the answer to this question is yes.”
If Valessa was a principal, then she was guilty.
One of the jurors nodded slightly. The packed courtroom watched them file out.
* * *
The jury room was either hot or freezing. The jurors banged on the door for the bailiff to adjust the thermostat. They had been in the windowless room for almost three days.
Among those sitting around the table were a railroad bridge tender, a lineman, a homemaker, a salesman, a maintenance worker, a day trader. During the deliberations, the day trader had scribbled almost 50 pages of notes.
The jurors had taken several votes.
First, they had done them by secret ballot. After a while, they switched to voting by a show of hands.
But they couldn’t reach a unanimous decision.
There were no angry exchanges. It wasn’t like the movies, the foreman would later say.
They had looked over the physical evidence, the photographs and the videos. Leaning against the wall were the shovel and pitchfork, the tools Adam Davis and Jon Whispel had used in their attempt to bury Vicki’s body.
Remembering the testimony was tricky. They tried to recall precisely what each witness had said. Different memories produced different recollections.
Some jurors were troubled by the lack of physical evidence linking Valessa to the crime. They wondered about the credibility of one witness, presumably Whispel.
Miranda rights had been reviewed, and the role of LSD. They discussed culpability and premeditation.
The foreman, Gerry Siering, felt like he was putting a frustrating puzzle together. “No matter what,” he’d said when they’d first gone into the jury room Wednesday, “we have to listen to what each other has to say.”
They listened. But they were still stuck.
* * *
In the courtroom, the defendant was wearing the pink sweater set her attorneys had bought the night before.
For two weeks, Valessa’s makeover had been the talk of the courthouse. In her old life, before her arrest, she had been the girl with blue fingernails, baggy jeans and an “A” tattooed on her right hand, professing her love for Adam Davis. She was the kid with a ferret named Slick.
For her trial, she had been remade into a young schoolgirl. At her lawyers’ insistence, her long brown hair had been cut into a conservative bob. The T-shirts and jeans she once had worn were replaced with ivory sweaters, pleated skirts, tights, even a pair of Mary Janes. Whenever the jury was in the room, she kept her hands—and the “A” tattoo—clasped behind her back or folded in her lap, under the defense table.
Those who knew Valessa in her old life barely recognized her.
“She wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing those kinds of clothes, any time, anywhere,” said Ed Philips, one of Vicki’s friends who attended the trial.
Valessa’s lawyers were angered at the suggestion that their client’s transformation was a ploy.
Valessa, they said, was merely dressing appropriately for a courtroom. Shouldn’t the attire of all their clients, they asked, show respect for the judge and jury?
“According to the media,” said Lyann Goudie, “I guess we’re supposed to be bringing them in naked or in jailhouse jumpers.”
But Valessa’s makeover went well beyond a simple gesture of respect for the courtroom. The clothes, the shoes, even the barrettes in her hair—in every detail she was being presented as a “little girl,” which is how her lawyers described her to the jury.
The Mary Janes said it all. They were not the typical shoes of a 17-year-old on the verge of adulthood. They were what a 10-year-old girl would wear to church.
Day after day, Valessa’s appearance and demeanor in the courtroom drove home a message of obedience, submission, innocence.
She had chosen not to take the witness stand and tell her story to the jury. Instead, she let her clothes testify for her.
* * *
An hour into their deliberations Friday, the jurors sent out a new question. Judge Padgett read aloud to the attorneys what the foreman had scrawled:
We request transcripts of any and all court records, testimony, and other usable evidence, specifically relating to whether or not Valessa held her mother down, or pinned or restrained her, in any way, during the course of the alleged murder.
Quickly, the lawyers on both sides tried to calculate what was behind the question. Padgett said there were no transcripts available, no more exhibits to review. The jury had what it needed.
He called in the jurors, told them just that and sent them out again.
An hour later, another question was handed out. It was a rhetorical puzzle.
You said “rely on your collective memory.” Must we rely on our own personal individual collective memory of all the evidence OR do you mean we rely on a majority memory of the collective group as a whole? i.e. if eight members remember something one way but four remember another, are the four obligated to abide by the memory of the eight, suspending any doubts they have?
Once more Padgett summoned the jurors. His answer to their question was its own puzzle:
“You must rely on your own personal collective memory.”
What was the jury stuck on? Did some jurors recall testimony or evidence differently from others? Whose memories would prevail?
* * *
They were all in limbo.
For days, those who had loved Vicki and those who still loved her daughter roamed the courthouse, wondering when the jury would end their waiting. They prayed together, snacked on blueberry muffins and Lay’s potato chips, kept a close eye on the nearest TV for any news of a verdict.
Mostly, they talked. Hour after hour they talked about Vicki and Valessa, parents and children, all that lingered unspoken beneath the facts of the case now before the jury.
The question, always, was why. Why had Vicki been killed? What had gone wrong inside the Robinson home in the months and years before the murder?
Like so many people, defense attorney Lyann Goudie said she did not know.
“Nothing about it is right. It’s all wrong,” she said. “I think a very bad person got mixed up with this kid.”
Alicia Thompson, a 16-year-old King High School student who attended the trial out of curiosity, said:
“I think things escalated between Valessa and her mom. Sometimes you paint yourself into a corner. You just can’t see a way out.”
Chuck Robinson talked about how impressionable his daughter was. “When you start hanging around with older kids, you’re gonna be in trouble. I don’t care who you are. You can’t be hanging around with kids four or five years older…It’s enormous. It’s huge.”
Assistant State Attorney Shirley Williams said the answer was inside Valessa. “Vicki was trying to break her and Adam up, and she wanted her mom’s money and her car and her future.”
Williams also talked about teens in general. “There’s this old saying: If you give them an inch they’ll take a mile…The rules are different now. Parents used to be ashamed if they let their children misbehave and act up. And now they’re ashamed to discipline their children.”
Carlton Huff, a friend of Vicki’s: “Putting those two kids together was a volatile thing. Take away one of a number of variables out of the equation, and this_wouldn’t have happened…Keep Chuck at home and it’s not a broken-up family. Adam gets raised by his mother. Obviously, you remove Adam from the situation and maybe she’s just another rebellious teenager. Take away the drugs and maybe it doesn’t happen. It’s a combination of factors. It’s not any one thing.”
Julianne Holt, Hillsborough public defender, mother of two small children: “I think about it all the time. I just think that we as parents have to slow down our lives long enough to see and hear what our kids are doing. You have to care who their friends are. You can’t say, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’”
Bruce Wilson, the Texas sheriff who captured _Valessa and Adam and Jon, had an opinion, too.
Months ago, when he was asked about the case, Wilson talked about how much children need love, how parents need to learn to discipline and set boundaries, the difficulties of raising kids when both mothers and fathers are off at work.
As for Valessa, he said it was a simple matter of gratification.
“That’s all the little girl was. She wanted what she wanted.”
The sheriff paused.
“It was the boy—that’s the way I got it. She wanted that boy.”
* * *
In the jury room, the 12 were struggling with matching the requirements of the various degrees of murder with each juror’s recollection of the evidence. The robbery charge—the one related to the use of Vicki’s ATM cards, and other items taken from the Carrollwood house—was intensely debated.
In the late morning, they read the jury instructions again. More talking, more listening. Just after noon, they decided to take another vote.
The foreman looked around the room. Twelve arms were raised.
* * *
When it came, it came, and there was nothing anyone could do to change it. The 18 hours of misery—the pacing and napping in chairs and trips to the water fountain—were over.
At 12:20 p.m., the jurors told the bailiff they had a verdict. The news spread in a current through the courthouse.
Vicki Robinson’s mother held a pink rose as she entered the courtroom. “This is for my Vicki,” Donna Klug said. “I wanted to think of my Vicki. She loved roses.”
It was the strangest mixture of dread and anticipation, walking into that room. The air was frigid, and spectators shivered against the cold and the nerves. Almost no one spoke. Stomachs fluttered.
“I think I’m gonna throw up,” said a lawyer from the public defender’s office.
The prosecutors sat silently at their table, watching the door the judge would walk through. They were composed, giving nothing away.
Behind the defense table, Lyann Goudie paced along the wall, arms folded, blue eyes flashing toward the door. Lisa Campbell was silently preparing a motion the defense would make before the verdict was read.
Dee Ann Athan sat close to Valessa. They were bound to each other now in ways that suggested mother and daughter.
Valessa looked peaceful. She leaned her head on Athan’s shoulder. That morning, it had been Valessa who brought a Good Friday Scripture to her lawyers, reading to them about Jesus and the Resurrection.
Her face was pearly. It was a yearbook face.
The judge swept in.
Before he recalled the jury, he had something to say.
“This is the point in the trial which is seen by people as either a victory or a loss,” the judge said. “And that’s not the way those of us who work here look at it, but I think that’s the way other people do.
“And I think it’s probably fair to say that in this case it will be seen by some people as a major loss, or a major victory.”
There was a beat of silence. People were trying to comprehend the meaning behind the judge’s words. They were almost a warning. He then ordered all in the courtroom to refrain from any emotion or disruption.
And then everything happened in a rush.
The jury came in. The judge looked to the foreman.
“Mr. Siering, has the jury reached a verdict?”
“Yes it has, your honor.”
“Hand it to the bailiff, please.”
The bailiff carried the slip of paper to the clerk. Her voice was clear and strong.
“The State of Florida versus Valessa Lyn Robinson,” she began.
“We the jury find as follows as to Count 1 of the indictment: The defendant is guilty of murder in the third degree.
“We the jury find as follows as to Count 2 of the indictment: The defendant is guilty of petty theft.
“We the jury find as follows as to Count 3 of the indictment: The defendant is guilty of grand theft motor vehicle as charged.”
The clerk had read so evenly and so crisply that it took a few seconds to grasp her words.
Chuck Robinson stared straight ahead. He would not be walking out with his daughter. But she had avoided a first-degree murder conviction and life in prison.
There was almost no noise in the courtroom, except for the cameras whining on auto-drive. Robinson and his wife and daughter Michelle, Valessa’s 19-year-old sister, stayed seated as they watched Valessa. She was handcuffed. Her expression was nearly serene.
“I love you,” she said, looking hard at each family member, burning her message into them.
The judge set sentencing for May 30.
Valessa was led out.
A low moan unfurled itself from the middle of the courtroom. Vicki’s friends had clustered together, arm in arm, and now one woman cried inconsolably.
Vicki’s parents and brother filed silently from the courtroom. Vicki’s mother was still holding the pink rose. They would soon set off on the 1,200-mile drive back to Michigan.
Before he drove off, Kirt Klug, Vicki’s younger brother, said one thing.
“My sister’s life was worth more than this.”
In the lobby of the public defender’s office, the defense attorneys were restrained.
“It’s Good Friday,” Lisa Campbell said evenly. “Given that the worst didn’t happen, I guess you could say it’s a good day for Valessa.”
Dee Ann Athan was cautious, as if she had rescinded all the emotion from the courtroom battle and was now waiting for sentencing. But later, when the attorneys had gone back into their offices, through a window Athan could be seen smiling.
* * *
Valessa handed her court clothes to her lawyers and put on her orange jail uniform.
She was led down a back elevator to a carport. A jail van waited for her. So did a TV camera.
Athan walked with Valessa, still clutching the girl’s hand. When Athan saw the camera, she headed for the photographer.
“No comment,” she said loudly.
The photographer ignored her. “Valessa, did you get a fair trial?” he asked, his camera rolling. No comment, Athan yelled again and again. She knocked the microphone out of the way and put her hand over the camera lens.
Valessa said nothing. She was loaded into the van that would take her back to her solitary cell at the Orient Road jail.
The murder charge Valessa had been convicted of is an uncommon one. Third-degree murder, unlike first-degree, doesn’t require premeditation. Nor is it a killing that the jury determines occurred during a violent felony such as rape or armed robbery.
Third-degree murder occurs when someone is killed during the commission of a lesser felony, such as aggravated battery or grand theft.
Under sentencing guidelines, Valessa faces approximately 13 to 20 years in prison. Judge Padgett has a reputation for imposing tough sentences.
A 1995 state law requires prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentences, so Valessa could actually spend the next 11 to 17 years behind bars. She could be out before her 35th birthday.
In jail Friday afternoon, Valessa was still confused about her convictions, Dee Ann Athan said. Her lawyer tried to explain it all to her.
“She’s not happy, but she’s not devastated,” Athan said. “She’s 17 years old. She’s not comprehending everything.
“She realizes it could have been a lot worse.”
* * *
Tom Klug, Vicki’s other brother, was already back in Michigan when the verdict came.
He thought what had happened to his niece was just.
She would be punished, but she would be able to get out of prison someday.
“I think this is what Vicki would have wanted. I think so,” he said. “It’s her daughter. I don’t think anyone would want her child locked away forever, without a chance to redeem herself.”
He hoped that one day, Valessa would sit down with her family and tell them what happened.
The truth, he said.
* * *
After Valessa was taken away and the jurors had hurried off and the lawyers had returned to the sanctuary of their offices, one thing remained unchanged.
Vicki Robinson was gone.
Twenty-two months after the murder, Vicki’s loss had torn a hole through the lives of those who cared about her, those who depended on her, even those who had been convicted of killing her.
There was no sense to any of it.
If Valessa and Adam Davis were so determined to be together, why didn’t they just get into the minivan and drive away? If Jon Whispel was so disturbed by the plan to kill Vicki, why did he hand over the knife?
No logic, no reason.
Whatever roles each of them played in the murder—no matter whose idea it was, who did the stabbing, who dumped the body in the woods—what did the three of them gain? A few days on the open road. Money. Drugs. Tattoos. The barest hint of freedom.
Nothing but waste.
* * *
In the state attorney’s office, a small plastic bag sits on a shelf. Inside is the 10-carat gold ring that Adam purchased for Valessa with her dead mother’s money. He bought it two days after the murder at the Wal-Mart on Dale Mabry Highway, just off the interstate. It cost $84.
According to Jon, Adam surprised her with the ring in the lobby of the store.
“What’s it mean?” said Valessa.
“What do you think it means?” said Adam.
“For right now.”
* * *
Four days ago, Jon Whispel turned 21. He has more than two decades of his sentence left to serve. He has been working as a prep cook in the prison kitchen. He says he doesn’t much like looking in the mirror.
Adam Davis, also 21, sits inside a 6-by-9-foot cell on death row at Florida State Prison. The romance between him and Valessa—the great love that Vicki Robinson paid for with her life—ended soon after the murder.
Now Adam has a new girlfriend. She lives in Starke, just a few minutes from the prison. Adam works on his appeals, reads Sidney Sheldon novels, watches the black-and-white TV in his cell, wonders when his turn with the executioner will come. Not long ago, in a letter to a friend, he wrote:
I’m probably 100 or 200 feet from the death chamber. I’m not far away.
Then there is Valessa.
In a few weeks, after the judge sentences her, she will be transported to a prison somewhere in Florida. Until then, she will remain at the county jail.
In her cell, she keeps a picture of her and her mother. It’s from Christmas, not long before the murder. Vicki is smiling. Valessa is smiling.
They look happy.
Times staff writers Graham Brink and Sarah Schweitzer contributed to this report. Research by John Martin. Transcription by Michael Canning.