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Forensic Doctor Testifies That Flawed Evidence Led to Capital Murder Conviction

Written on Tuesday, March 16th, 2021 by Kimberly DelMonico
Filed under: Expert Opinions, ExpertWitness, Working with Experts

A forensic doctor has testified that the science used in the capital murder conviction of Robert Leslie Roberson III was flawed.

The Death

In February 2002, two-year-old Nikki Curtis was taken to a Dallas hospital. She died of blunt force injuries to the head.

Curtis’ father, Robert Leslie Roberson III, said that she died after landing on her head during a fall from her bed. Prosecutors theorized that Roberson instead shook his daughter so hard that she slipped into a coma and then left her on her bed for hours. Roberson was charged with capital murder in connection with his daughter’s death.

The Trial

In February 2003, a twelve-person jury found Roberson guilty of murder and sentenced him to die by lethal injection.

In 2007, Roberson appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals, but each of his 13 claims of error was rejected.

New Expert Testimony

In June 2016, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed his June 21, 2016 execution and sent the case back to trial court to consider four different claims, including the claim that “junk science” was introduced at Roberson’s original trial.

An evidentiary hearing initially began in August 2018 but was continued after a district clerk found 15-year-old evidence, including lost CAT scans. The hearing was delayed to give the prosecutors and defense teams time to review the evidence and develop expert witnesses.

Roberson’s legal team retained Dr. Janice Ophaven, a forensic pathologist with expertise in pediatric deaths. Dr. Ophaveen has been practicing since 1971. Judge Deborah Evans certified Dr. Ophaven as an expert in pediatric forensic pathology.

Ophaven explained that Curtis had “died because her brain died from cranial pressure that created a lack of oxygen and blood to the brain.” She testified that homicide could not be concluded from a post mortem exam, but said that it was “[h]ard for pathologists to be objective because they rely on law enforcement and, in some cases, law enforcement gives them information to get a confession.”

Openhaven testified,

Science does not tell us what happened to Nikki. . . . At the time of trial in 2003 it was believed a short fall could not create death, that is no longer the science. Shaken baby does not apply to children of Nikki’s age. Blunt force trauma absolutely can cause the type of injury Nikki had. In this case lack of oxygen to brain cells caused fluid to exit out of the cells and that fluid continued to build and created a sequence of events that caused her death. At the time of trial, the science was that blood in the eyes was a sign of shaken baby. It is no longer the science.

This is just another in the series of cases where experts are questioning the legitimacy of shaken baby convictions. For more ExpertPages coverage on this issue, see “Rising Trend of Experts Questioning Legitimacy of Shaken Baby Convictions” and “Woman Allowed to Present Expert Testimony to Overturn Shaken Baby Conviction.”

About Kimberly DelMonico

Kimberly DelMonico is a licensed attorney in New York and Nevada. She received her law degree from William S. Boyd School of Law at University of Nevada, Las Vegas and her undergraduate degree from New York University, where she studied psychology and broadcast journalism.

About Kimberly DelMonico

Kimberly DelMonico is a licensed attorney in New York and Nevada. She received her law degree from William S. Boyd School of Law at University of Nevada, Las Vegas and her undergraduate degree from New York University, where she studied psychology and broadcast journalism.