East Texas death row inmate fighting for new trial says he is innocent

“I thought I was going to get off because I knew I didn’t do nothing,” Roberson said.
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Published: Aug. 9, 2022 at 10:12 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 9, 2022 at 11:53 PM CDT

PALESTINE, Texas (KLTV) - In an exclusive interview with KLTV 7, Texas Death Row inmate Robert Roberson says he is innocent and did not kill his daughter, Nikki Curtis.

Roberson’s sentence stems from events that unfolded on January 31, 2002, when Roberson says Nikki was sleeping in his bed. At one point during the night, Roberson says he found Nikki had fallen onto the floor.

“I can’t tell you what happened, because I don’t know,” Roberson said. “We went to bed that night and I’m not sure exactly what time it was exactly, you know, and when I had woke up I found her on the floor, you know, and how did she get on the floor? I don’t know.”

Roberson says Nikki appeared to be okay after he discovered her lying on the floor.

“Her heart was beating, and at the time she acted like she was alright and stuff and so we stayed up a bit and then finally dozed back off,” Roberson said.

But when he woke up later, Roberson says he discovered Nikki wasn’t breathing. He put her in the car and headed for Palestine Regional Medical Center.

“I was scared, didn’t know what was wrong with her,” Roberson said.

As they worked to revive Nikki, nurses noticed bruises on her body and head. They immediately questioned Roberson’s claim that they were the result of a fall. Child abuse was suspected, and Palestine police were called.

“I know it looks bad, I understand it looks bad, because I was the only one that was there at the time,” Roberson said.

Suspicion grew when nurses say Roberson didn’t appear to be showing emotion while at the hospital.

Julian Esparza: “Were you upset at that time?”

Robert Roberson: “Yes, I was upset. I’m still upset because over these years, I’ve been the victim too, you know, because that’s my little girl, you know.”

Police didn’t buy it. Roberson was arrested and taken to jail. Meanwhile, Nikki was flown to Children’s Medical Center in Dallas – where she was pronounced dead on February 1, 2002.

“And so the autopsy was done in the you know shadow that there had already been abuse allegations and Robert was arrested before the results of the autopsy came back but everything was very fast, jumped to abuse, and that would never fly today at a trial,” Roberson’s attorney Gretchen Sween said.

A year goes by, and the trial begins. Roberson pleads not guilty. Focusing largely on medical testimony, the prosecution argued it was impossible for Nikki’s injuries to the result of a short fall from the bed – and her death was instead the result of abuse. Additionally, Roberson was accused of sexually assaulting Nikki, but those charges were later dropped.

“All the doctors and police, just ‘cause little girl had a knot on her head and stuff, you know, bruise, they figure, ‘he did it,’” Roberson said.

Prosecutors argued Nikki’s death could have been the result of frequent shaking – a phenomenon known as Shaken Baby Syndrome. According to the Centers for Disease Control, violent shaking of an infant or young child can result in loss of consciousness, blindness, and even death. Over the last few years in courtrooms across the country, attorneys and judges alike have questioned the legitimacy of the Shaken Baby Syndrome theory. It was described to the jury as a possible cause of Nikki’s death.

“At the time of trial, the Shaken Baby Syndrome was seen as orthodoxy. It was kind of universally accepted even though there had started to be challenges by people that were saying what really is the science underlying this? But reading it in 2016, it was shocking to see that no one was questioning this hypothesis at all,” Sween said.

In this case, Sween says Nikki did not have injuries to her neck – something she says would be present if she was violently shaken. What Nikki did have was a so-called “goose egg” on her head – along with subdural bleeding and brain swelling. Roberson says he did not cause those injuries.

“I never did hit Nikki,” Roberson said.

The jury didn’t buy it. Roberson was found guilty and sentenced to death.

“I thought I was going to get off because I knew I didn’t do nothing,” Roberson said.

Today, Roberson is incarcerated at the Allan B. Polunsky unit in Livingston – along with the nearly 200 men who have been sentenced to death in Texas. In June 2016, Roberson was scheduled to be executed, but that was stayed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals after his attorney argued “junk science” related to Shaken Baby Syndrome is no longer accepted by medical experts like it was back in 2003.

“And the idea was if any infant, and then it became extended to children, came into the hospital and that condition was observed, then it was seen as, oh, this is proof of child abuse,” Sween said.

If not the result of abuse, what did cause Nikki’s head injuries? Sween says it was likely the effect of oxygen deprivation caused by a recent bout with pneumonia.

“It sounds so complicated, but it’s kind of simple. If you cease breathing, and you’ve had even the smallest subdural bleed, and these things are not uncommon, you cease breathing and then someone revives you, in other words, they revive the respiratory function and the circulatory function, but your brain was already dead, all you’re gonna get is blood accumulating inside the head and that is what was seen at the autopsy,” Sween said.

Roberson was back in an Anderson County courtroom in January 2022 in hopes of being granted a new trial. His lawyer Gretchen Sween once again made the case that Roberson did not kill Nikki. Prosecutors – pushing back – saying the original verdict was correct.

“Most of their scientific evidence is not new. Nothing. Not the pneumonia, not the injuries,” Anderson County First Assistant Criminal District Attorney Scott Holden said at the hearing in January 2022.

After closing arguments, Judge Deborah Evans was tasked with deciding whether to recommend a new trial for Roberson to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Ultimately, Judge Evans recommended against a new trial. Now, it’s up to the Court of Criminal Appeals to make a final decision on whether Roberson will be granted a new trial.

Julian Esparza: “Do you think if you got a new trial, things would things be different?”

Robert Roberson: “I believe so. I believe so.”

In the two decades he’s spent behind prison walls — Roberson says he’s changed. He says he’s become closer to God and even got married.

“She’s from Germany and stuff, you know, she’s about four and a half, five years older than me. She’s real supportive,” Roberson said.

In the meantime, all Roberson can do is wait as he hopes to get off death row.

Julian Esparza: “Are you afraid of dying?”

Robert Roberson: “I don’t want to die but I’m not afraid of dying.”

Julian Esparza: “Why?”

Robert Roberson: “Why? I know I’m going to heaven. Because after I die, nobody can hurt me no more,” Roberson said.

For more information on Robert Roberson’s case, click here.


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