DALLAS — The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to consider a new trial for a Houston-area man convicted of killing his girlfriend’s baby daughter, despite a key witness in the case retreating from her testimony.
Neil Hampton Robbins is serving a life sentence for capital murder in the May 1998 death of 17-month-old Tristen Rivet in Montgomery County. At Robbins’ trial, medical examiner Patricia Moore testified that Tristen died of asphyxia. Moore ruled the baby’s death a homicide.
But Moore changed her opinion eight years later. When asked by prosecutors to review her autopsy report, Moore said she could no longer classify the baby’s death as a homicide, according to a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals opinion. Robbins then filed a petition for a new trial, saying his conviction was based on testimony now considered false.
The Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’ highest court for criminal cases, disagreed and denied a new trial. Robbins appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied a request Monday to hear the case.
“We’re disappointed that the court didn’t take the case,” said Larry Rosenberg, an attorney for Robbins. “We think that the issue presented is a very important one, and we hope the court will take it in a case soon.”
Robbins is not eligible for parole until 2038.
Tristen’s mother, Barbara Hope, found the baby lying in her bed with a pillowcase covering one eye, part of her nose and her mouth, the criminal appeals court said. Tristen was cold and not breathing. Hope tried to perform CPR on Tristen on the ground outside, but was told to stop because she was using too much force, the court said. Robbins’ attorneys later argued that the CPR attempts could have caused Tristen’s death.
At trial, Moore testified that she didn’t believe CPR could have caused the bruises and injuries Tristen had. But when she was questioned in 2007, Moore said she had more experience and information to suggest aggressive CPR attempts could have caused bruising.
“I now feel that an opinion for a cause and manner of death of undetermined, undetermined is best for the case,” Moore wrote in a letter cited by the court. She could not be reached for comment.
Still, the criminal appeals court ruled in a narrow 5-4 decision not to grant Robbins a new trial.
Bill Delmore, a prosecutor for the Montgomery County District Attorney, said authorities still had a “pretty strong case” for ruling Tristen’s death a homicide. Another pathologist who examined the evidence in 2008 said she thought Tristen had died of asphyxia by suffocation instead of compression to the chest — but still ruled the case a homicide.
Several other experts, including ones for the defense, said they could not determine a cause of death.
Delmore pointed to witness testimony that Tristen had suffered injuries in Robbins’ care and signs that his behavior was becoming erratic.
“If an expert that we trusted had come to us and said, no this child died from some specific natural cause … I don’t think we’d be having this conversation,” Delmore said. “But that’s not the case.”