HOUSTON - An attorney who persuaded a Texas jury to award one of the largest civil verdicts ever says he and his clients don't expect to collect any of the $150 billion judgment, but they hope it helps persuade prosecutors to seek charges against a man they say doused a boy with gasoline and set him on fire.
Robbie Middleton survived his horrific injuries for 12 years before dying last year of a rare form of skin cancer, which attorneys argued was related to the extensive burns he suffered on his eighth birthday. Lawyer Craig Sico and Middleton's family said they now hope for a renewed investigation of Don Wilburn Collins, who Middleton accused of setting him on fire.
Collins never faced criminal charges in Middleton's case, in part, prosecutors said, because of inconsistencies in the evidence and difficulty obtaining information from such a young victim. Now 26, Collins is in prison for an unrelated sexual assault conviction against another 8-year-old boy and for failing to register as a sex offender. He is to be released next year.
He did not appear in court during the civil trial and no attorney appeared on his behalf.
Sico said he asked jurors to make a statement in the case by topping the biggest civil verdict he was aware of a $145 billion judgment handed down against the tobacco companies in Florida in 2000.
"We said, `If you want your message to be heard, it needs to be significant and that's how people hear about these things. And we leave it to you.' We made no request," Sico said.
The Fayette County jury returned the $150 billion verdict Tuesday after a two-day trial.
The Florida tobacco verdict of $145 billion, which was later overturned, had stood as the largest U.S. civil jury verdict, said John T. Nockleby, professor and director of the civil justice program at the Loyola Marymount University School of Law in Los Angeles.
"It's the kind of award that has no meaning outside of an expression of moral outrage," he said. "They could have awarded a trillion dollars, and it would have made no difference."
Middleton's mother, Colleen Middleton, said Wednesday the family hadn't really thought about the size of the judgment.
"We're never going to see any money," she said. "What we thought was please let these people realize Robert was precious, like everybody else's child, and he didn't deserve this."
"When they came back with the $150 billion, I was like: `They get it.' And that made me feel so good," she said.
Montgomery County Attorney David Walker said Wednesday that the sheriff's department's cold case unit already has been reviewing the Middleton burning case for several months.
"I will tell you the case is an extremely difficult case given the evidence that was discovered years ago and the nature of that evidence," Walker said. "Young Robbie was so traumatized and so damaged that information from him was very, very difficult to obtain."
Walker said there also were some inconsistencies in the evidence, not necessarily from Robbie Middleton, that presented a challenge to prosecutors. He declined to elaborate.
"But I can tell you if it can be properly and successfully be prosecuted certainly it would have been back then and it would be now," Walker said.
Robbie Middleton was attacked on June 28, 1998 his eighth birthday as he walked through a wooded area in the Southeast Texas town of Splendora, 35 northeast of Houston. A neighbor who discovered the boy told a 911 dispatcher that the burned child said, "Some kids threw the gas on him."
When police questioned the boy, who was burned over 99 percent of his body, he told them: "Don did it."
Collins, who was 13 at the time, was taken into custody five days later. He was held in juvenile detention for six weeks before he was released without charges to the custody of an uncle appointed as his legal guardian.
In a video deposition taken just before he died last year, Middleton identified Collins as a person who sexually assaulted him about two weeks before the fire attack.
Middleton's parents eventually moved about 100 miles east to Fayette County, where they filed their lawsuit against Collins.