Conviction in burned-boy case upheld
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.
Don Willburn Collins’ conviction came with a 40-year sentence. He won’t be eligible for parole until 2033.