Ken Bigham Jr. is proud to have had the opportunity to represent the Middleton family in their civil case against their son’s attacker, Don Wilburn Collins, and to have secured the largest jury verdict in American history on their behalf. The journey to find justice for Robert Middleton has been a long one, but with Collins now facing criminal charges, his family may finally have the opportunity to find some degree of closure.
In 1998, on his eighth birthday, Robert Middleton was attacked near his home in Splendora, Texas, a small town about 35 miles northeast of Houston. His alleged attacker, a 13-year-old Don Willburn Collins, tied the boy to a tree, doused him with gasoline, and set him on fire. Middleton survived the attack but suffered burns on 99% of his body. He identified Collins as his attacker and Collins was arrested later that year. Collins spent several months in a juvenile facility before being released after prosecutors said they had too little evidence to pursue the case. Charges were dropped in 2000 and the alleged motive for the attack remained unclear.
A small portion of skin on Robert’s foot had been spared from the burns, and it would prove critical in the effort to save his life. The small patch of unburned skin was sent to a laboratory and grown in a tissue culture. Six weeks later, surgeons were able to graft the grown tissue onto Robert’s burned body, replacing donated cadaver skin that had kept him alive until that point. The following years brought over 200 agonizing surgeries. Also agonizing was Montgomery County prosecutors’ failure to deliver the justice that the young boy and his family deserved.
Collins, meanwhile, was convicted at the age of 16 for aggravated sexual assault of another eight-year-old boy. He served four years at a youth commission. Later, Collins would be convicted of theft and resisting arrest, but during this time he was never charged with the attack on Robert Middleton.
What happened in 2011, however, would set into motion the series of events that would eventually result in Collins being charged with capital murder. That year, just two months before his 21st birthday, Robert Middleton died from a cancer related to the burns. Before his death, he recorded a deposition which shed light on a possible motive for the attack. According to Robert, Collins had sexually assaulted him two weeks earlier on the same trail where the attack took place. Ken’s family decided to take action, and went to Ken Bigham for help with their case.
When Middleton’s family first approached Ken, they were unclear about what their legal options were for holding Robert’s attacker accountable. After studying the facts of the case, Ken came up with the idea that the best way to secure justice for the Middletons was to file a civil suit against Collins. Middleton’s family agreed. Ken then assembled a team of three like-minded attorneys, including a litigant, and filed the case on Robert’s behalf. The result was the largest jury verdict ever awarded in US history, equalling 150 billion dollars in damages. Both Ken and the Middleton family knew that they would never see a dime of this money, of course, but they believed that the lawsuit would draw attention to the case and help persuade Montgomery County prosecutors to do the right thing.
“They wanted this to put some kind of value on Robby’s life,” Ken Bigham said shortly after the verdict. “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.”
After considering Robert’s deposition, investigators were prompted to reopen the case, and prosecutors sought to charge Collins with capital murder. They would need to move the case from juvenile to adult court in order to try him. After a three day hearing, it was ruled that the case would transfer. Robbie Middleton would get his dying wish – Collins was charged with his murder.
As of October of 2014, Collins’ trial was reassigned to Galveston County following a judge’s ruling in October of 2014 that Collins could not hope to have a fair trial in Montgomery County due to the publicity surrounding the case. Ken Bigham Jr. and his team continue to fight for justice in the case of Robert Middleton. Robert’s mother, Colleen, is relieved to see the case finally have its day in court.
“When Robert died we were thinking maybe nothing will ever happen, maybe someone is just going to get away with what they did to him,” she told reporters. “It’s been a long road.”
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