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East Texas death row inmate convicted of killing daughter seeks new trial

Judge Deborah Evans has to make a recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals by Feb. 15.

PALESTINE, Texas — An Anderson County man sitting on death row convicted of killing his 2-year-old daughter is attempting to get a new trial based on claims of fraudulent evidence and testimony. 

Robert Roberson III, 55, has been on death row since his sentence began in February 2003 in connection with a capital murder conviction in death of his daughter Nikki Curtis on Jan. 31, 2002.

According to the Texas Tribune, Roberson was set to be executed in 2016; however, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the execution, sending it back to trial court in Anderson County. 

On Monday morning at the Anderson County Courthouse, his legal team claimed the conviction was a result of junk science, which is investigation material that later becomes discredited. 

Both the defense and the state delivered closing remarks to 87th District Judge Deborah Evans Monday.

Following those statements, Evans has to make a recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals by Feb. 15 regarding the possibility of a new trial. The appeals court will then make a decision on the matter. 

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice records show Roberson took his daughter to the hospital saying she had fallen out of bed. She had severe trauma to her head and died from her injuries in Dallas the next day. 

During her closing arguments, Gretchen Sween, Roberson’s attorney, said the girl’s death was not a crime, just an accidental and natural event. She told Evans the science has improved since Roberson’s trial and “Shaken Baby Syndrome” did not cause the child’s death. 

Sween said a recent state law puts a stop to junk science and fighting for Roberson has been one of her great accomplishments. 

The condition, which is a result of forcefully shaking an infant or toddler, has no scientific foundation and doesn’t explain what happened to the child, Sween said. Oxygen deprivation, not violent shaking or blunt force, caused the child to slowly become brain dead.

She called Shaken Baby Syndrome a controversial hypothesis that has been proven wrong, and the child’s neck would have to be broken for shaking to cause injury or death. 

More recent medical documents have found evidence she had a form of pneumonia that was fatal, Sween said.

She claimed there was a presumption of abuse when nurses said Roberson showed “no emotion” when he brought the girl to the hospital. 

Sween said a registered nurse at the time falsely reported there was evidence child was sexually abused. TDCJ records state Roberson was sexually assaulting the girl when she was injured. 

Sween also noted that the 2-year-old had chronic health issues throughout her life, such as upper respiratory infection and periods of not breathing. 

The state argued the Shaken Baby Syndrome is still a legitimate diagnosis but also said the 2-year-old died because of multiple blunt force strikes to her head, not that syndrome alone.

The prosecutor argued Roberson’s defense team is not bringing any new evidence and a difference of opinion cannot be considered new evidence. He argued that innocence requires the introduction of new evidence, which he said is not the case for Roberson.

Witness To Innocence, an organization dedicated to freeing those wrongfully sentenced to the death penalty, also attended the hearing in support of Roberson.

Assistant Director of Membership and Training Ron Keine, who is an exonerated death row inmate, said the evidence presented in court Monday questions the original verdict and suggests there wasn’t a crime at all. 

Keine added new evidence indicates that Roberson's daughter died of pneumonia and other accidental factors. 

“Mr. Roberson was convicted based on the now discredited hypothesis known as Shaken Baby Syndrome. No actual science supports the hypothesis that shaking could have caused this child's death,” Keine said. “New science shows that her condition had nothing to do with violent shaking or any inflicted head trauma.”

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