While Robert Ray Middleton did not live long enough to see justice served, a $150 billion civil jury award came Tuesday for the family of Middleton, who was severely burned as a boy in 1998 near his Splendora home.
Now, Middleton, who died last spring at the age of 20, also may finally get the justice he wanted in the form of criminal charges against the person he insisted deliberately set him on fire.
Middleton was 8 years old when someone tied him up, poured gasoline on him and set him on fire. He was able to run from the woods where he was burned, and neighbors ran to help him.
With third-degree burns over nearly 100 percent of his body, Middleton clung to life for weeks until he recovered enough to undergo the first of countless skin grafts.
When he died last spring, the cause of death was ruled skin cancer, which his mother Colleen previously said was caused by his injuries from being burned.
A jury in La Grange awarded $150 billion in damages to Middleton’s family Tuesday. While family members know they won’t see any of that money, they are hoping the verdict will urge Montgomery County to reopen the case against Don Wilburn Collins, said Ken Bigham, one of the attorneys working pro bono for the Middletons in the civil case.
“They wanted this to put some kind of value on Robby’s life,” Bigham said Wednesday. “When Robby came to see me, all he wanted was for Don Collins to be prosecuted or to know why this happened.
“He wanted justice.”
Collins, currently imprisoned on an unrelated sexual assault charge of a boy, was never charged and denies involvement in Middleton’s death.
Montgomery County already has reopened its investigation, and the case is “still being worked on,” County Attorney David Walker said.
“We will do our best to prosecute this.”
Walker said his office will work in conjunction with the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office to move the case to district court.
“The process requires that we request a transfer to district court,” he said. “We must demonstrate that we could not prosecute this earlier but now we can, and judge, here’s why.
“It was always very, very difficult to come up with the evidence.”
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office is “close to completing” its investigation, Walker said.
Detectives arrested Collins, who was 13 at the time, for the assault. He was held in juvenile detention for three months without bond as investigators and prosecutors tried to build a case against him.
They never could because the physical evidence did not match the statements investigators had gotten from everyone, defense attorney Bill Pattillo, a former Montgomery County juvenile prosecutor, previously said.
“It seems as though investigators were only able to collect a pack of lies from everybody they talked to,” he previously said.
Days after he was burned, Middleton woke up long enough to tell detectives, “Don did it.”
Collins was the No. 1 suspect, Pattillo previously said, but he and investigators were unable to corroborate Collins’ statements with the physical evidence.
Collins, now 26, is incarcerated for failing to comply with his registration as a sex offender. Convicted in 2001 for the aggravated sexual assault of an 8-year-old boy in Liberty County, Collins is required to be registered as a sex offender the rest of his life.
Bigham and the legal teams who worked for the $150 billion civil award will “share everything we have” with Montgomery County, he said.
He would not be specific regarding what evidence was presented during the civil trial.
“It’s my understanding that Montgomery County has evidence from the crime scene that is quite compelling,” he said. “The most direct evidence was Robby himself.”
The fact that Montgomery County is reopening the case “would be fantastic,” Bigham said.
“Robby was unwavering that all he wanted in life was justice and there was no doubt in his mind who’d done this,” he said. “This is a step in the right direction.”