Texas Man Suspected Of Grisly Childhood Burning Prompted This Precedent-Setting Ruling

A Texas district judge has ruled that a man accused of the gruesome 1998 burning of a fellow child at the age of 13 can be charged with murder as an adult in Texas — even though, at the time, he could only have legally been charged as a child. The victim recently died of injuries related to the burns that covered 99 percent of his body, almost 13 years after the incident. In making her decision, Judge Kathleen Hamilton is setting a legal precedent, with potentially broader implications.

Details of Don Willburn Collins' alleged crime are grisly in the extreme. He's accused of attacking Robert Middleton, a younger boy on his eighth birthday, by dousing him in gasoline and setting him ablaze. Middleton endured 13 years of subsequent physical therapy before passing away from skin cancer.

The cancer which killed him has been blamed on the horrific burns he suffered. Collins was arrested at the time, but released due to lack of evidence. Not long before Middleton died, however, he recorded a taped deposition that alleged Collins had also sexually assaulted him weeks before the alleged gasoline attack. The deposition caused the authorities to reopen the case.

Here's where it gets tricky: Because Middleton ultimately died as a result of his burns, his death was ruled a homicide, so prosecutors wanted to charge Collins with murder. But to do so, they had to get Collins tried as an adult. In 1999, Texas changed its law, allowing children as young as ten to have their capital felony charges transferred to an adult court, but that's a year late to include Collins — without, that is, a favorable ruling from a judge, which is exactly what the prosecution got Thursday.

Prosecutors successfully argued that since Middleton didn't die until 2011, the murder in question didn't occur until then. And 2011 was well after the law was changed to include young teenagers, as Collins was at the time.

The implications of this decision for Texas' judicial system are not yet abundantly clear, but this much is certain: A state with a considerable penchant for trying children as adults is opening up new ways to do so, building precedent for future cases.

As for Collins, his crimes unfortunately didn't stop there: Collins has been previously convicted on a separate charge of sexually assaulting a different young boy, who's testified that Collins threatened to burn him, too, if he ever told anyone.