Robert Leslie Roberson III: Shaken baby case disputed by medical experts

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This story is the thirteenth in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.

Five days before he was scheduled to be put to death in 2016 for the 2002 murder of his two-year old daughter, Robert Leslie Roberson III won a reprieve from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

The court ordered the Anderson county courts to review Roberson’s claims that he had been wrongly convicted of the murder of Nikki Curtis based on junk science and inflammatory, but false, claims that his daughter had been the victim of sexual abuse.

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Unrequited Innocence

A grand jury indicted Roberson of murder in the commission or attempted commission of the sexual assault of a young child. Sexual assault charges were dismissed at the close of evidence at the 2003 trial based on lack of evidence, but the jury convicted Roberson and sentenced him to die.

At issue is the evidence authorities relied upon to convict Roberson for the death of young Curtis. Roberson and his then-girlfriend, Teddie Cox, had brought Curtis, limp and unresponsive, to the Palestine (TX) Regional Medical Center one morning in January, 2002. Roberson told hospital officials that his daughter had fallen out of bed while he was home alone with her.

Robert Leslie Roberson III

Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Robert Leslie Roberson III

Palestine medical officials were immediately skeptical that Roberson had described the full story of what happened to Curtis. A nurse in Palestine, Andrea Sims, who specialized in sexual assault cases, concluded that Curtis had injuries to her rectum consistent with sexual abuse.

They contacted police, and Dr. Thomas Konjoyan ordered her transferred to Children’s Hospital of Dallas, where she died.

A pathologist, Jill Urban, conducted the autopsy and concluded that Curtis had died of blunt force injuries that could have been the result of shaking, and Roberson was charged.

In addition to Dr. Urban, at trial Konjoyan testified that it was “basically impossible” the injuries happened from falling out of bed. Dr. Janet Squires, a Dallas pediatrician, testified that the death resulted from a “very forceful act.” And Dr. John Ross, who examined Curtis before she died, testified that the girl’s brain had shifted, and the injuries were not accidental.

Squires testified that she could not determine if young Curtis had been sexually abused, and Dr. Urban detected no rectal injuries nor did she find any semen.

In addition, the prosecution called Roberson’s girlfriend, Cox, as well as Cox’s daughter, 10, and niece, 11. Cox testified that Roberson told her while in jail that he might have “snapped” and committed the crimes, but had no memory of doing so; the girls said they had seen Roberson spank and shake his daughter.

The defense called Cox’s sister, who testified Roberson had a loving relationship with his daughter and that her sister had a bad reputation for truthfulness.

The conviction was upheld through a series of appeals and petitions, until, days before execution, a new petition was filed by a new set of defense attorneys, Benjamin B. Wolff and Gretchen S. Sween. Their petition noted the “sea change” that occurred in how medical science viewed shaken baby cases, and cast significant doubt that a child could die of being shaken without any evidence of neck injury.

The new petition included affidavits from three pathologists and one biomechanical engineer who agreed the prosecution theory is “unsupported by contemporary medicine or biomechanics.” The four agreed on several alternatives they considered more likely causes of death that did not involve Roberson.

Though the Texas appellate court stayed the execution, Roberson remains on death row, where he has been for more than 16 years, with his petition still awaiting further proceedings.