Con­vic­tion in burned-boy case up­held

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Jay R. Jor­dan jjor­dan@hc­non­ twit­­jor­dan

The Texas Supreme Court has de­clined to re­view the cap­i­tal mur­der con­vic­tion of a man in the rape and burn­ing death of an 8-year-old boy, who died years after the at­tack.

With all state appeals now ex­hausted, Mont­gomery County pros­e­cu­tors be­lieve Don Will­burn Collins’ mur­der con­vic­tion and 40-year prison sen­tence will stand.

Collins, now 32, was con­victed in 2015, nearly 17 years after he raped 8-yearold Robert Mid­dle­ton and later doused him with gaso­line and set him on fire to cover up the crime. Collins was 13 at the time.

Mid­dle­ton suf­fered burns over more than 99 per­cent of his body but sur­vived, en­dur­ing pain and surg­eries for the rest of his life. He died in 2011 at age 21 from an ag­gres­sive can­cer stem­ming from the burns. Pros­e­cu­tors did not know about the rape un­til days be­fore Mid­dle­ton’s death when he recorded him­self.

Au­thor­i­ties ruled Mid­dle­ton’s death a homi­cide.

Collins was in­dicted on a cap­i­tal mur­der charge in 2014, and a jury con­victed him a year later. He was sen­tenced to 40 years in prison, and the high court af­firmed the con­vic­tion on Oct. 20.

“I don’t think there’s ever been, and there may never be, a ju­ve­nile case in the county that’s more egre­gious than that,” County At­tor­ney J.D. Lam­bright said. “… All to shut him up to not get charged with sex­ual as­sault.”

Collins’ many appeals hinged on whether it was con­sti­tu­tional that he was tried as an adult. Even though he was charged when he was an adult, the crime was still con­sid­ered a ju­ve­nile of­fense be­cause it hap­pened when Collins was 13.

Lam­bright’s of­fice is tasked with pros­e­cut­ing ju­ve­niles in Mont­gomery County, and Lam­bright per­son­ally sought Collins’ pros­e­cu­tion when he took of­fice in 2013. The case had gone cold up un­til Mid­dle­ton’s death in 2011.

In 2012, then-Mont­gomery County At­tor­ney David Walker sought an opinion from then-At­tor­ney Gen­eral Greg Ab­bott as to whether Collins could be cer­ti­fied to stand trial as an adult. Ab­bott’s rul­ing only said pros­e­cu­tors have “great dis­cre­tion” on whether to pros­e­cute ju­ve­niles as adults but did not give an opinion on Collins’ spe­cific case, ac­cord­ing to ear­lier re­ports.

Lam­bright de­cided to seek Collins’ pros­e­cu­tion in light of Mid­dle­ton’s death.

A state law passed in 1999 al­lows ju­ve­nile pros­e­cu­tors to seek adult tri­als on ju­ve­nile sus­pects who were at least 10 years old at the time of the of­fense, which brought the min­i­mum age down from 14 years old. Collins’ Con­roe-based at­tor­ney, Jer­ald Crow, ar­gued that Collins’ adult cer­ti­fi­ca­tion was not le­gal be­cause the law changed the year after the of­fense, claim­ing Collins should only be held ac­count­able to the laws that were in place in 1998.

Three state courts — the 359th state District Court in Mont­gomery County, the 9th Court of Appeals in Beau­mont and the Texas Supreme Court in Austin — all dis­agreed with Crow and up­held Collins’ con­vic­tion. Crow could not be reached for com­ment.

“The Mid­dle­ton fam­ily is very grat­i­fied,” Lam­bright said. “It’s not go­ing to bring Robert back, but Collins is not go­ing to be out there harm­ing oth­ers.”

Lam­bright spec­u­lated there is a “re­mote” chance that Collins’ at­tor­neys will take the is­sue to the fed­eral court sys­tem, al­though it is en­tirely pos­si­ble.

Ana Ramirez / Con­roe Courier file

Don Will­burn Collins’ con­vic­tion came with a 40-year sen­tence. He won’t be el­i­gi­ble for pa­role un­til 2033.

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