CONROE (CBSDFW.COM/AP) — The attorney for a Texas man accused of dousing a boy with gasoline and then setting him on fire on his eighth birthday in 1998 on Wednesday questioned the reliability of evidence against his client.
Don Willburn Collins made his initial court appearance Wednesday after a murder charge was filed in Montgomery County last month.
Authorities say when Collins was 13, he poured gasoline on then 8-year-old Robert Middleton and set him on fire. Middleton survived the attack, but died in 2011 from skin cancer that authorities say was caused by the deep burns.
Middleton had long accused Collins of burning him. But authorities say that right after the attack, Middleton was too injured to help their investigation.
During a detention hearing, state District Judge Kathleen Hamilton found there was enough probable cause to hold Collins and ordered he be held on a $1 million bond. Collins was already being jailed in a neighboring county on another case.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Montgomery County Attorney J.D. Lambright said of Collins’ court appearance.
E. Tay Bond, Collins’ attorney, also questioned whether Collins can now be tried as an adult. The case is still in juvenile court, and Hamilton will have to decide if it can be transferred to district court so Collins can be tried as an adult.
If Hamilton denies the transfer, that would end the case. A procedural hearing to formally read the murder charge against Collins was set for Monday.
Bond told Hamilton he will need at least 90 days to go through about 53,000 pages of documents gathered by Montgomery County authorities, in southeast Texas, as part of a new investigation into Middleton’s attack. The new probe was spurred in part by a deposition Middleton gave two weeks before his death in which he for the first time accused Collins of sexually assaulting him before being set on fire.
Authorities said the new investigation also gathered claims that Collins told another 8-year-old that he was later convicted of sexually assaulting that he would burn the boy just like Middleton.
But Bond questioned the reliability of claims made by Middleton against Collins, saying they might have been made under mental duress or the effects of medication.
“There is certainly a desire by the county attorney’s office and law enforcement to hold somebody responsible … But it appears from even in the information in the detention hearing that the finger has been pointed at several people in addition to merely my client,” Bond said.
During Wednesday’s detention hearing, Montgomery County juvenile prosecutor Brett Peabody said Middleton had initially named another boy who lived near his home in Splendora, about 35 miles northeast of Houston, as the attacker. That boy was later cleared as a suspect.
Bond also said there might be constitutional issues in the case because in 1998, state law said a juvenile had to be at least 14 years old for a capital felony offense case to be transferred to adult court. The law was changed in 1999 to lower the age to 10.
Bond said the change should not be applied retroactively to Collins.
Prosecutors allege the crime of murder did not take place until 2011, well after the law was changed.
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