Ethics, Justice and Punishment: The Don Collins-Robert Middleton Case

Collins

Several readers sent me this case, which is as odd as it is horrible. In 1998, Don Willburn Collins allegedly attacked, possibly raped, and set on fire an 8 year-old boy named Robby Middleton when Collins was 13, and Middleton was only 8. Collins spent several months in juvenile detention but was released when prosecutors decided they did not have enough evidence to convict him. Middleton survived, permanently scarred and maimed, his health ruined. In 2011 he died of skin cancer, which doctors attributed to his burns. Shortly before he perished, he gave a video deposition accusing Collins of the crime.

Now a judge has ruled that Collins can be prosecuted for Middleton’s murder, since he died as a direct consequence of the attack 13 years earlier. Moreover, the judge said, he can be charged as an adult, though he was a juvenile when the attack took place.

The case raises many legal issues, and I am neither prepared nor interested in exploring those. I suspect that the task facing prosecutors is insuperable, given the time that has passed, issues of proof and law, and the gut feeling many jurors will harbor that such a conviction would be unfair.

I will render this ethics verdict, however: If Collins was the attacker, I believe it would be fair, just and ethical for him to be punished for it now as an adult, for that is what he is.

If Collins had been convicted for the assault  and sentenced as a juvenile back when he was first arrested, then I would agree that charging him with murder now would be grossly unfair. He never served any punishment, however, for committing a cruel, vicious, terrible act. (Again, this is predicated on his being guilty of the crime in fact. If he is innocent of the crime, any punishment would be unjust.) Collins escaped the consequences of his crime, and if he escapes again, he will have successfully committed assault, rape and an especially cruel murder without suffering for them. He is already better off than most juveniles charged with such acts, indeed better off than those convicted of lesser ones: Collins has been free for the lat 13 years, while his victim, burned over 99% of his body, suffered in agony.

It makes no sense at all to charge Collins as a juvenile now. (I am not saying that a court might not be legally justified in finding that he has to be charged as a juvenile, or not charged at all; I am saying that it makes no ethical sense.) If a neighbor found out today that Collins had vandalized his garage by spray-painting obscenities on it when Collins was 8, would the proper consequences be an apology, restitution, and a spanking? Collins would have adult responsibility for accepting the adult consequences of his juvenile crime, tempered, one would hope, by recognition of the mitigating factor of his youth when the crime was committed.  (This dilemma is one of many reasons why all but the most serious crimes have statutes of limitations, after which they cannot be the basis of criminal convictions.) The primary ratioanale for trying juveniles in a separate and more lenient system is that we regard children as too young and unformed for society to give up on them, and that imprisoning a young teen for decades is inherently cruel. But Collins is not a juvenile any more, and what was an assault when he was a teen matured into murder after he became an adult.

If Collins did the ultimately fatal deed in 1998, then he should be convicted and imprisoned.  For how long? That’s for the judge to decide. It would be reasonable to consider that Collins did not possessed adult rationality when he destroyed Middleton’s life. It would also be reasonable to consider Collins’ victim, and how some conduct can be so inherently vile and wrong that no punishment can be sufficient for the purposes of justice. (The linked Mail article has some photos of Middleton that make the point; you can also find a disturbing photo of the boy shortly after the attack here.)

If Collins is convicted sent to jail for the rest of his life, he would not have ethical grounds for complaint, no matter how young he was when he burned Robbie Middleton….because he did burn Robbie Middleton.

__________________________

Pointer: Several, including Lianne Best.

Facts: Daily Mail, Seattle PI, Lawyers.com

Graphic: Daily Mail

28 thoughts on “Ethics, Justice and Punishment: The Don Collins-Robert Middleton Case

  1. “the gut feeling many jurors will harbor that such a conviction would be unfair.”
    This guy has a record of sexual assault against children. He’s a predator He needs to be removed from society.
    I would find it hard to feel anything but contempt for him. There is nothing fair about what he did to an innocent little boy. I couldn’t do it, but there are probably people out there who could set him on fire, just to even the score, and I wouldn’t even think THAT was unfair.
    “Shortly before he perished, he gave a video deposition accusing Collins of the crime.”
    That’s proof enough for me.
    But, then I don’t teach ethics and I’m just an eye for an eye kind of gal when it comes the the dregs of humanity like Willburn Collins.

        • Probably not. Probably.

          He’d have been 20 or 21 talking about an event that happend when he was 8. An event that was doubtless incredibly traumatic, and we know that trauma can affect the memory. So it’s technically possible that Middleton just had it in for Collins, but it’s not necessary to assume that he was motivated to make a false accusation. He could have been wrong. He could have created a false memory based on the assumption that it was Collins. A major physical and mental trauma followed by 12 years to stew over it gives the mind a lot of time to do weird things. Not to mention that Middleton died after making the tape, so it wasn’t even possible to cross-examine him to see if the story was consistent.

          So no, a victim pointing a finger isn’t enough for me to assume guilt and declare someone a piece of human garbage.

            • Could be, sure. I never said it couldn’t. Heck, I never said I thought collins was innocent. I just don’t think that one person pointing the finger years after a traumatic event (during which time everyone has figured Collins to be guilty) and then dying before he could be cross examined to corroborate, is “proof enough for me.”

              Even if Middleton had memories that indicate it was someone other than Collins, or no memories at all, existing in an environment where Collins is thought to be guilty would nearly guarantee his brain work overtime to create and support the vivid memory of Collins being the culprit.

          • The deposition is either convincing or it isn’t I find it hard to believe that I wouldn’t know who raped me and set me on fire, even when I was 8. I remember who did a lot of crappy things to me when I was a kid, His attacker tried to destroy an eye witness, and failed. I repeat: I think reasonable doubt will be hard to prove…Collins was found liable in a civil trial where the standard is less difficult.

            • You apparently don’t know much about the science of false accusations, then. Profound physical and mental trauma coupled with years of delay is a great environment for the creation of a false memory. Lots of people find it hard to believe that false memories can seem so real and be so genuinely believed, but that’s the incredible and frustrating power of the human mind at work.

              Out of curiosity, do we know why Middleton waited so many years to make the declaration shortly before his death?

              • How many times do I have to say it? I’m not judging the evidence—I haven’t seen the evidence. Collins knew the kid, he was the prime suspect; he didn’t have an alibi at the time. I bet he could have been convicted on emotion alone, but he was lucky that the prosecutors were ethical. The post is very clearly about the ethics of 1) punishing him as an adult and 2) charging him with murder and 3) his having to pay now a greater price than he would have had if charged as an adult. That, as AGAIN I wrote clearly, is the predicate. I would write the same thing if he were found to be innocent conclusively tomorrow. The post is not about his guilt—it is about what is fair to him IF he is guilty.

                Which part of “The case raises many legal issues, and I am neither prepared nor interested in exploring those. I suspect that the task facing prosecutors is insuperable, given the time that has passed, issues of proof and law, and the gut feeling many jurors will harbor that such a conviction would be unfair. I will render this ethics verdict, however: If Collins was the attacker, I believe it would be fair, just and ethical for him to be punished for it now as an adult, for that is what he is” is so confusing? You are arguing about the evidence. That’s not the topic at hand.

                But to answer your question…he gave the deposition because he knew he was dying, and perhaps even knew that it would lead to a murder charge. He already had (uncollectable) damages from the civil verdict stemming from the civil suit.

                • I know it’s not exactly why you wrote the post but they seem inextricably tied to me. Why wait to give the deposition? Was he unsure now and convinced to be sure while there was still time? Was he waiting, either of his own accord or under suggestion, until just before he died?

                  Had he given equally damning testimony years ago, the charges would not have been murder, and Collins may not have been an adult (depending on when). Instead, he holds his deposition until such time as, by the time the gears of the system start going, he will be dead and a murder charge can be brought. Teh whole thing stinks.

                • Oh, and the part that’s hard to understand is “punish him based on his current legal status for something that happend when he had a different legal status.” It’s a bogus way for posturing prosecutors to show they are “tough on crime” and a judge to do likewise.

                  • Why bogus? It makes no sense to punish an adult as if he were a juvenile. Of the three less than ideal options, the best is to punish the current day murderer as he is today. He skated for 13 years. He has no grounds for complaint. What would you suggest? Send him to juvie?

                    • If nothing else then the sentencing TIME guidelines should match a juvenile offense. It makes perfect sense to punish a crime that was commited by a juvenile using juvenile sentencing guides. The fact that the state couldn’t get its shit together shouldn’t serve to let them hammer him harder.

                      If a law is passed that makes something illegal or changes the degree of illegal that it is, then those who commited that act prior to the law change don’t get punished under the new law. Likewise, a crime commited by a juvenile needs to be punished under the standards that were in place when the crime was committed, not how it would be punished if it were committed now.

                      Criminal law is based around the circumstances OF THE CRIME. Not the circumstances when the state got around to collecting all its evidence, not the circumstances when they realized the crime happened, but what was done when it was done. How is this hard to understand? This is like a man accused of statutory rape saying he shouldn’t be charged because his victim passed the age of consent before the police found out. The fact that she was a minor when the act occurred is what is relevant.

                    • I have no problem with that—as I said, the judge can recognize all of it in sentencing. But he will be sentenced as an adult with mitigating circumstances, not as a juvenile.

                    • So you don’t see any problem with a prosecution being based on circumstances that didn’t exist at the time of the crime as long as the crime was bad enough that you think the guy deserves it. Damn that’s cold.

  2. I’m under the impression that the purpose of juvenile sentencing is not merely that adult prison is too hard or that we shouldn’t give up on kids, but that a juvenile by definition doesn’t have the full mental capacity of an adult to properly consider their actions. Given that, being an adult NOW (and being better able to handle adult prison, etc) doesn’t diminish the fact that he was not an adult when the crime happened.

    This particular crime is heinous and evil but policy needs to be made on broad principles, not constantly changed for individual circumstance. His legal status has changed (minor to adult) but it was his legal status at the time that should be relevant. The very fact that a person can be found competent to stand trial but then found not guilty by reason of mental defect should indicate this- we don’t say “well he’s sane now and can go to prison,” we have to look at the defendant’s status AT THE TIME to see how he should be tried and punished.

    Besides, I don’t trust a loophole this size. It’s a dinner bell for book-throwing law-and-order prosecutors to drag their feet on juvenile cases as long as possible before going to trial to get that juicy adult conviction.

    • Legally we stick to principles for the long term, and I agree that it is necessary. It was legal that OJ was acquitted, and served broad principles. I would not feel he would be treated unjustly, however, if he ended up in jail, or on death row. He deserves it, based on what he did. His rights, however, have to be protected and observed.

      That’s why I only discussed what I would regard as small j “justice.”

      • If you mean the visceral urge to see this guy put away, then I’m totally with you. But I don’t think it’s right that we have juvenile laws and then say “well this minor did something bad enough to be tried as an adult,” and I REALLY don’t think it’s right that you can be tried as an adult for something that happened as a minor, just because it took a while for them to find out. Right in a systematic rights-based legal sense, not right in a “gets what’s coming to him” sense.

  3. Given his past history, I’m sure there’s some legal mechanism that could be coerced into giving him an indefinite sentence.

    While I could be convinced that it’s safe that he be let out on the streets again, and if it is, we should do so, I’d take a lot of convincing.

    I don’t have all the facts. My immediate reaction on the few facts I know, is that barring something extraordinary, I’d review him for release in another 20 years.Setting the bar extraordinarily high.

    But he might have changed.

    • I’m never quite sure if you’re just observing facts, or if you’re approving of them, when you say things like “there’s a legal mechanism that could be coerced into an indefinite sentence.” I don’t care how bad the criminal is, it’s not OK for prosecutors to twist the law to try to nail someone extra hard. Thinking it’s a good thing when they do it to someone you really really hate is just opening the door for the next person they decide is guilty, and they need to twist a mechanism to make sure he’s tried as an adult and given the sentence they feel is appropriate.

  4. This does beg a related question.

    Whose brilliant idea was it to save Robby Middleton’s life? If you look at the pictures…

  5. If he had been convicted for the assault, and the subsequent death still occurred, and in your opinion it be unfair to charge him then with murder, do you just chalk the offender getting off up to moral luck?

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