HUNTSVILLE, Texas - Attorneys who contended "junk science" was used to send a father to death row for killing his 2-year-old daughter 14 years ago have won a reprieve blocking the Texas inmate's execution set for next week.
Robert Roberson III, 49, was set to die Tuesday for the February 2002 death of his daughter, Nikki Curtis, at his home in Palestine in East Texas. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals sent his case back to his Anderson County trial court late Thursday to review claims he is innocent of capital murder. There is no timetable for the appeal to be resolved. One judge on the nine-member court, Lawrence Meyers, voted to refuse the reprieve and dismiss the appeal.
Lawyers argued Roberson's conviction was based on "junk science" and "false, misleading and scientifically invalid testimony" and that new scientific evidence establishes he would not have been convicted.
The child had serious head injuries, and Roberson contended she accidentally fell from a bed. Medical staff at a Palestine hospital called police because they considered the injuries suspicious. Physicians who examined her said bruises to her chin, cheek and jaw and a subdural hematoma - bleeding outside her brain but inside her skull - likely were intentional and no accident.
Nikki died the next day, Feb. 1, 2002, and a medical examiner ruled blunt force head injuries as the cause.
Defense attorney Benjamin Wolff told the appeals court that Nikki's death could be attributed to a number of things, such as undiagnosed meningitis, an accidental injury before Roberson began caring for her the day she died, a fall from the bed he didn't see or a fatal congenital condition.
The Anderson County District Attorney's office did not immediately respond to a message left Friday.
According to court records, Nikki had been living with Roberson and his girlfriend, Teddie Cox, for about three months after a court awarded him custody of the child.
Testimony from Cox, who was not the child's mother, showed he had no interest in caring for his daughter, but was her sole caretaker for the first time on Jan. 31, 2002, and was not pleased.
Prosecutors initially said Roberson sexually assaulted the 2-year-old, based on statements from a hospital nurse, but dropped that element of the capital murder charge late in the trial when evidence could not conclusively support it.
"But by then, the damage had been done," Wolff said in Roberson's appeal. "The state used this rank speculation to drive home its view that Robert was not just a poor, mentally impaired father struggling with sobriety, but a deviant - capable of raping and brutally shaking his own daughter to death."
Roberson was a parolee with previous convictions for burglary and theft and parole violations.
At least seven other Texas inmates have executions scheduled for the coming months, including one in July and four in August.