Here’s the essential rundown of the Valessa Robinson case. Essentially, Vicki Robinson was a 49 year-old mother; her daughter, Valessa, was a rebellious teenager. Valessa was 15 and dating a 19 year-old (Adam Davis). Vicki Robinson was reported missing in late June 1998; the investigation shifted to her daughter and Davis within a few days, and eventually, they were caught (in Texas; the Robinsons lived in Florida) along with a third person, Jon Whispel. Whispel was actually key to the whole case, because he flipped on his friends with this story:
Whispel reached a deal with prosecutors and turned against his friends. He said that on the night of the murder, he, Valessa and Adam had taken LSD. As they sat in a Denny’s restaurant talking about what to do, Valessa suddenly suggested they kill her mother. Inside the Robinson home, Davis attacked Mrs. Robinson and stabbed her, Whispel said, adding that at one point Valessa held down her mother.
Here’s the breakdown: Whispel got 25 years off a second-degree murder charge; Davis got the death penalty. Valessa Robinson, who both proposed killing her own mother and held her down at one point in the final brutality? She’s out of prison after 15 years.
This is a complicated situation on some levels, but not on others. Bear with me. The idea behind the third-degree murder charge was that Robinson wouldn’t spend the rest of her life (she was 15 at the time) rotting in prison. Part of the issue is also this simple: Robinson had good lawyers. Here’s a profile of the defense team. Lyann Goudie, mentioned prominently, also defended Wesley Snipes in his tax evasion case. There’s a segment down near the bottom of that article about Goudie and her legal team re-dressing Robinson for trial. Read the entire thing (too long to paste here), but focus in this area:
“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.
I get the argument here: a 15 year-old girl shouldn’t have to spend her entire life in prison. There is such a thing as second chances in the world. The Bible argues for that, and people hold up the Bible to justify almost anything in everyday life, so, OK … this 15 year-old girl went nuts, did some LSD, hated her mother, and dealt with it in a way that .00001 percent of teenage girls might choose to. But we should let her have some of her life back, because second chances do happen, and people can become reformed, right? But then there’s this, from the link above:
During her early time in prison, she had some disciplinary reports for threats, contraband and sex acts. But she also took courses on fixing cars and building character, taught aerobics to fellow inmates, cut off her hair for Locks of Love and studied nutrition — a field she may pursue once she’s out, according to Dee Ann Athan, a former attorney who has stayed close to Robinson.
OK, so … she’s done some good stuff and some bad stuff while in prison. Hardly an entirely perfect record, though.
Pam Bondi was a prosecutor on the Robinson case; she’s now Attorney General of Florida. In that same article, she says, “My hope is that she will now lead a productive and law-abiding life.” The original judge, J. Rogers Padgett, is retired. When reached for comment, he was even more abruptly direct: “What can you say? She served her sentence.”
I was torn on this for a hot second when I started writing, then I came full circle to one side. Robinson should be in prison, and should be in prison for life. There are situations where people make a mistake and it changes everything — i.e. drunk driving — but this isn’t one of those situations. Yes, drugs were involved. And yes, being an adolescent is challenging. But millions have gotten through it without proposing murder and being implicit in the murder. The notion of a mother-daughter relationship, while inevitably fraught at points (all are), is one of the purest things that human society has; honestly, you could put the word “mother” alongside the word “apple pie” and instantly calm down an American-based psychopath (that might not be correct, but the concept is there). Violating that bond is something that deserves life-long punishment. I honestly believe that. There are ways to make some kind of a difference while in jail, and Robinson was doing those — i.e. teaching aerobics to other inmates. Let her do that stuff. Don’t bring her back into the streets and communities that her mom was selling houses in. That’s just not right.
The legal system in the U.S. often seems to make no sense. I’m not a lawyer and I’ve never taken any legal classes, so I’m sure I’m going to get some of this wrong, and I apologize in advance for that. It seems like everything in the modern legal system is based on veneer, which is what’s happening in broader society too (think about “selfie” as word of the year, or Snapchat being valued at $3 billion). Robinson got third-degree because her lawyers set up a situation where her boyfriend and his friend and the mother were “adults;” Robinson was a “kid.” They dressed her like a 10 year-old going to Church. They gamed the system. That seems to be how the legal world works these days. Maybe it’s always how it’s worked and I just didn’t get it until recently. Look at her from trial, FYI:
Meanwhile, we (as the U.S.) incarcerate more people than anyplace on Earth, and we’re keeping people in for 30 years on a third drug bust — but we’re letting Valessa walk 15 years after orchestrating and helping physically contribute to the murder of her mother?
There’s more about Valessa here from 48 Hours, and then there’s this article where she talks about not physically killing her mother (Davis did that). Again, by no means a legal expert, and again, LSD was involved (apparently) — but it seems sometimes the U.S. legal system puts too much emphasis on who delivered the final blows. Sure, that’s technically the act of murder, but wade through all the discussions related to this case, and you can make an argument that Valessa was the true murderer, if not the physical murderer. But one person’s on death row and she’s free. I don’t know how to fix the legal system, mostly because I don’t completely understand everything it’s rooted in, but it seems like this case brings a few aspects to the fore: reduce the gamesmanship element of trials, think about the actual context of acts, and don’t let 30 year-olds who murdered their mother out in less than two decades. (Sad thing is, it happened in the Tylar Witt case in California too; Witt got 15 years because she flipped on her boyfriend — the murderer — who got life.)
I’m all for second chances, conceptually, but this one doesn’t seem right. Hopefully Valessa lives a fulfilling, enjoyable, mostly-sheltered-from-the-public-eye life for the next 40-50 years, and hopefully she gives back to her community in numerous ways … but even if her release is entirely successful, I’m not really sure it’s the right thing.