Wrongfully Convicted Death Row Exonerees Speak Out in Support of New Trial for Robert Roberson

Roberson seeks relief based on overwhelming evidence of actual innocence


From Left to Right: Merel Pontier, Jason Fulton (members of Mr. Roberson’s legal team), Gretchen Sween (attorney for Mr. Roberson), Ron Keine, and Kristin Cuellar (Executive Director, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

January 31, 2022

Contact: Kristin Cuellar, kristin@tcadp.org, (512) 552-5948

(Palestine, TX) Ron Keine, a man who was released from death row in New Mexico when his wrongful conviction and death sentence were tossed out by the courts, attended today’s hearing for Robert Roberson. Mr. Roberson was convicted and sentenced to death in Anderson County in 2003 for the death of his two-year-old daughter. Mr. Keine is a member of Witness to Innocence, a non-profit advocacy organization created by and for death row exonerees. Today, the group released a statement in support of Mr. Roberson, who has emphatically maintained his innocence during the nearly 20 years he has been on death row in Texas.

This morning at the Anderson County Courthouse, Judge Deborah Evans presided over closing arguments in the state habeas proceedings for Mr. Roberson, whose evidentiary hearing began in August 2018 and finally continued in March 2021. During last year’s hearing, Mr. Roberson presented new evidence not simply challenging the reliability of the conviction but demonstrating the accidental and natural causes of his daughter Nikki’s death from, among other things, an undiagnosed pneumonia. Mr. Roberson also presented numerous, highly qualified experts who explained errors in the autopsy and provided new scientific information about multiple conditions that led to Nikki’s collapse--none of which involved inflicted injuries. Once Judge Evans issues her recommendation in this case, it will return to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) for an automatic review and final determination. If any of the four claims he presented is accepted by the court, Mr. Roberson will be entitled to a new trial. Read the proposed findings submitted by counsel for Mr. Roberson: https://bit.ly/3HhqiHA Following the hearing, Mr. Keine spoke at a press conference alongside Mr. Roberson’s Attorney, Gretchen Sween, where he read the statement of support from Witness to Innocence:


People like me and my fellow death row survivors at Witness to Innocence are living proof that innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to death. We are fortunate that the mistakes in our cases were undone before it was too late. When it comes to the death penalty, the cost of getting it wrong could not be higher – there is no way to reverse a wrongful execution. Granting Robert Roberson the new trial he deserves is the very least the courts can do.

Mr. Keine, who was wrongfully convicted of murder in New Mexico and sentenced to death in 1974, was released after the murder weapon was traced to a law enforcement officer who admitted to the killing. Today he serves on the board of directors of Witness to Innocence and testifies before legislatures in support of death penalty repeal and other criminal justice reforms, such as his efforts in support of the New Mexico Civil Rights Act adopted in March 2021. After listening to the closing arguments in Mr. Roberson’s evidentiary hearing, he said, “I realize archaic sciences have sent people to death row and even led to the execution of innocent people in Texas. I cannot believe that any reasonable person can look at the evidence-both past and present-and come up with any conclusion other than that Mr. Roberson is totally innocent.” Mr. Keine’s presence at today’s hearing highlighted the need to take seriously the risk of executing an innocent person. To date, 186 people have been exonerated nationwide after a wrongful conviction and death sentence. The growing understanding that innocent people have, and continue to be, wrongfully convicted and executed is one of the key reasons that the death penalty has been on the decline in the United States since the 1990s. For every eight executions, one death row prisoner has been exonerated, and a 2014 study from the National Academy of Sciences reported a conservative estimate that 4.1% of people on death row are innocent. Witness to Innocence’s statement of support expresses concern that Mr. Roberson’s conviction centered on the now discredited hypothesis known as Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). “SBS has sent hundreds of parents and caretakers to prison and to death row despite having been debunked in medical and legal journals,” Witness to Innocence writes. SBS is part of a larger pattern of false or misleading forensic evidence that is seen in 30% of wrongful capital convictions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Mr. Roberson filed on Friday, The Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences shared its conclusion that “Mr. Roberson’s conviction is rooted in what we understand today to be junk science.” Mr. Roberson’s attorney, Gretchen Sween, reflected:

When claims were filed on Robert’s behalf in 2016 and his pending execution was stayed, we knew only that the conviction hinged on the controversial SBS hypothesis and the false insistence that short falls can never seriously injure toddlers. But through this proceeding, we have uncovered evidence categorically disproving that any crime occurred. Nikki collapsed from an undiagnosed pneumonia. Additionally, biomechanical engineers have pointed out the impossibility of shaking a 28-pound toddler forcefully enough to cause internal brain damage yet cause no harm to the neck. Nikki’s condition, observable only through CT scans and during the autopsy, have nothing to do with “shaking” or “blows” to the head but are explained anatomically by oxygen deprivation associated with viral pneumonia, a phenomenon we have all, sadly, come to better understand due to COVID-19.


The Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences’ brief noted that “when faced with present-day understanding of SBS/AHT, other courts across the nation have granted post-conviction relief in cases where individuals were convicted based on the unsubstantiated SBS/AHT hypothesis.” They continued, “because the jury was presented with only one theory as to Nikki’s cause of death, and because current scientific understanding calls that theory completely into question, Mr. Roberson is entitled to habeas relief.”


Texas has the third highest number of death row exonerations, with 16 since 1973. There is strong evidence the State has executed innocent people who were failed by the criminal legal system. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 50% of executions of people with strong claims of innocence have taken place in Texas.


“Once an innocent person is convicted, it’s incredibly difficult to turn it around and have the facts of the case reexamined,” Mr. Keine told those assembled outside the courthouse. “In Mr. Roberson’s case, the lead detective in the original investigation went on record that he does not believe justice was done. That should be a big red flag and certainly indicates that a new trial is warranted. We just have to hope that the strong evidence developed in this case has an impact and that Mr. Roberson will get another chance at justice.” ### About Witness to Innocence: Witness to Innocence is an organization of, by, and for death row exonerees. Its mission is to empower exonerated death row survivors to be the most powerful and effective voice in the fight to end the death penalty in the United States. Through public speaking, testifying in state legislatures, and media interviews, its members expose the reality that innocent people are sentenced to death. WTI also provides an essential network of peer support for the exonerated, most of whom received no compensation or access to reentry services when released from death row. Learn more at https://www.witnesstoinnocence.org/. About Robert Roberson:

Robert Roberson is on death row in Texas despite maintaining his innocence and compelling evidence that he was wrongfully convicted. Find out more at https://justiceforroberson.com. Link to download photos: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/16DRf60VAz7-vUas9vO2RUdqMePkS_tC5?usp=sharing


Robert Roberson

Ron Keine, Board Member, Witness to Innocence, Exonerated from Death Row in NM