Murder Charge OK'd Though Victim Didn't Die for 13 Years

Image: Don Willburn Collins
Don Willburn Collins in court Thursday in Conroe, Texas.Jason Fochtman / The Courier via AP

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A Texas man can be tried as an adult on murder charges — even though he was only 13 at the time he allegedly set a young boy on fire in 1998, and the victim didn't die until three years ago.

A judge's ruling in the unusual case came Thursday after witnesses testified that they heard Don Willburn Collins, who's now 28, admit he tied 8-year-old Robert Middleton to a tree, douse him in gasoline and set him on fire.

Middleton survived the attack, which left him with severe burns over 99 percent of his body, and died in 2011 of skin cancer. Prosecutors contend that Collins murdered Middleton because his skin cancer was caused by his burns.

Don Willburn Collins in court Thursday in Conroe, Texas.Jason Fochtman / The Courier via AP

Middleton had said all along that it was Collins who set him on fire, but Collins wasn't prosecuted in 1998 for lack of evidence.

That changed in 2011, when Middleton gave a deposition accusing Collins of also having sexually molested him that day. That led authorities to reopen the investigation, and Collins was charged with murder last year — in juvenile court.

The ruling this week by Judge Kathleen Hamilton, after a four-day hearing in Conroe near Houston, moves the murder case to adult court.

Collins' attorneys had argued there was no physical evidence linking Collins to Hamilton's death, calling the case hearsay.

Montgomery County Attorney J.D. Lambright called the decision "a tremendous victory." And Middleton's mother, Colleen, said that after 15 years, "I do see the light at the end of the tunnel."

"Hopefully, one of these days, it will end," she told NBC station KPRC of Houston on Thursday.

"We're ecstatic that [the judge] looked at Robert's deposition and said that she believed that it was credible and true," Middleton said. "He did that deposition. He knew he was dying, and I'm glad it wasn't for nothing."

— M. Alex Johnson