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East Texas death row inmate who claims he is innocent of toddler’s death back in court

Published: Jan. 31, 2022 at 11:18 AM CST|Updated: Jan. 31, 2022 at 11:14 PM CST
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PALESTINE, Texas (KLTV) - Closing arguments were made Monday in the Anderson County bench trial of Robert Roberson, who has been an inmate on Texas’ death row since 2003.

On January 31, 2002, Roberson claimed he discovered his 2-year-old daughter, Nikki, had fallen out of bed and was injured. He took her to Palestine Regional Medical Center for treatment. She was later taken to Children’s Hospital in Dallas where she died on February 1, 2002.

Following her death, authorities arrested Robert Roberson and charged him with capital murder in connection with his daughter’s death. He was being accused of shaking and beating Nikki so bad, that she sustained severe injuries that later resulted in her death.

In his trial the next year, the prosecution argued that “shaken baby syndrome” led to Nikki’s death. This is a term used to describe injuries that come from the violent, intentional shaking of a baby or toddler. An Anderson County jury returned a guilty verdict and Robert was sentenced to death.

“It’s just sort of unfathomable the nightmare he has been living,” Roberson’s attorney Gretchen Sween said.

In a bench trial this morning, Sween argued it was not shaking or beating that caused Nikki’s death, but rather a series of health problems, including a recent bout with pneumonia.

“Shaken baby became an accepted diagnosis without anybody even thinking about that. That if you shake an infant, let alone a toddler, imagine trying to pick up 28 pounds, shake them violently enough that supposedly you’re causing internal brain damage, but their neck is not injured? It’s nonsensical, but it’s the kind of thing that gets momentum and people don’t pause to think about it because the emotions are so intense, especially when you’re talking about the death of a child,” Sween said.

In the courtroom, Sween showed Judge Deborah Evans Nikki’s cat scans showing one blow to the head, which Sween says are indicative of injuries from a fall ─ not from abuse. She went on to argue that Nikki was prescribed medication that today the FDA warns should not be given to children her age. Sween says that, paired with pneumonia, was fatal. The prosecution disagreed.

“Most of their scientific evidence is not new. Nothing. Not the pneumonia, not the injuries,” First Assistant District Attorney Scott Holden said.

In his closing argument, Holden upheld the testimony from the 2003 trial and said the evidence presented today does not conclusively show that Roberson did not kill his daughter.

Sween says the new evidence proves otherwise.

“A highly skilled neuropathologist who’s been looking into this very thing to look at the autopsy slides under his microscope. Look at the lung tissue and he saw it, but he said nobody was being trained to even look for this kind of interstitial pneumonia. It wasn’t like you were learning this in medical school, it took new science to be able to recognize this,” Sween said.

With arguments now complete, Judge Evans now must come to a recommendation that she will pass along to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. From there, they could grant Roberson a new trial, an exoneration, or nothing at all.

After 20 years, Sween says Roberson still has faith that he will one day walk out of death row a free man.

“If he’s granted a new trial, I’ll be back. I will not let this go,” Sween said.

Robert Roberson was originally supposed to be executed back in 2016, but that was stayed. Right now, no execution date is set.

Sween says Roberson credits his faith for helping him stay optimistic after nearly 20 years on death row.

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