What to Know About Robert Roberson on Texas Death Row for a Crime That Never Occurred

Mr. Roberson’s case is riddled with unscientific evidence, inaccurate and misleading medical testimony, and prejudicial treatment.

Urgent 10.23.23 By Innocence Project Staff

Mr. Roberson’s case is riddled with unscientific evidence, inaccurate and misleading medical testimony, and prejudicial treatment.

Urgent 10.23.23 By Innocence Project Staff

Robert Roberson on Texas death row. (Image courtesy of the Roberson family)

Robert Roberson at Polunsky Unit in Texas. (Image courtesy of the Roberson family)

Case update: On April 10, 2024, lawyers for Mr. Roberson filed a motion to block the Anderson County DA from setting an execution date, given strong evidence of his innocence. Learn more.

Robert Roberson’s case is riddled with unscientific evidence, inaccurate and misleading medical testimony, and prejudicial treatment. In 2002, Mr. Roberson’s two-year old, chronically ill daughter, Nikki, was sick with a high fever and suffered a short fall from bed. Hospital staff did not know Mr. Roberson had autism and judged his response to his daughter’s grave condition as lacking emotion. Mr. Roberson was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to death under the now-discredited “shaken baby syndrome” (SBS) hypothesis.     

The overwhelming medical and scientific evidence now shows that Nikki died of accidental and natural causes. Mr. Roberson’s innocence case is attracting growing and widespread support from eminent scientists, doctors, faith leaders, innocence groups, former federal judges, best-selling novelist John Grisham, and the lead detective who testified for the prosecution, who now believes he contributed to an innocent person being sent to death row.

The Innocence Project joined Mr. Roberson’s legal team because of the risk that an innocent man could be executed for a crime that never happened.

Here’s what you need to know about Mr. Roberson’s case and the scientifically unsound argument that led to his conviction and death sentence.  

1. The prosecution based its case against Mr. Roberson on the hypothesis that Nikki’s death was caused by SBS — a condition that was never scientifically validated and the premises of which have been discredited by actual science.

SBS was first hypothesized by radiologist Dr. John Caffey and neurosurgeon Dr. Norman Guthkelch in the 1970s. The pair proposed that shaking a baby could cause fatal brain bleeds. The “syndrome” came to be associated with a triad of symptoms: bleeding under the dura (the membrane that covers the brain), brain swelling, and retinal hemorrhaging (bleeding in the eyes) — symptoms we now know Nikki experienced due to her pneumonia, the medications she received, and her fall.

Although no evidence or testing ever supported the connection between these symptoms and supposed SBS, by 2001, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a position paper — which is not a scientific, peer-reviewed study — stating that violent shaking and “shaken baby syndrome” should be presumed whenever these three symptoms are observed. Faced with what was then believed to be proof beyond dispute, Mr. Roberson’s own defense lawyer agreed with the State that Nikki must have died from SBS. When Mr. Roberson refused to accept a plea deal, his lawyer argued only that Mr. Roberson had not meant to kill Nikki and that he was mentally impaired.

In 2009, however, six years after Mr. Roberson was sentenced to death, the AAP retreated from the version of SBS used in his trial. Dr. Guthkelch, the neurosurgeon whose paper first posited the SBS hypothesis, later reviewed a number of cases of people asserting innocence and was struck by the number of cases where children had a history of illnesses, indicating their injuries were the result of natural causes, not abuse. In 2015, shortly before his death, Guthkelch told the Washington Post, “I am doing what I can so long as I have a breath to correct a grossly unjust situation.”  Today, no credible science would endorse the SBS premises that Mr. Roberson’s jury was told were sound medical science.

To date, at least 32 parents and caregivers in 18 states have been exonerated after being wrongfully convicted under the shaken baby hypothesis.

2. Nikki was suffering from myriad medical issues that contributed to her death.

However, no doctor at the time of her collapse took a holistic look at her medical history to rule out all the many possible cases of her symptoms, because it was believed at the time that SBS — and only SBS — could explain her condition.  

A differential diagnosis would have required considering, for instance, the facts that, days after her birth, Nikki had the first of many infections that proved resistant to multiple antibiotics, including chronic ear infections that persisted even after she had had tubes surgically implanted. She also had a history of unexplained “breathing apnea” that caused her to suddenly stop breathing, collapse, and turn blue.

The week before her death, Nikki had been vomiting, coughing, and having diarrhea. When her symptoms didn’t stop after five days, Mr. Roberson and his mother took Nikki to their local emergency room in Palestine, Texas, where a doctor prescribed Phenergan, a potent drug which now carries an FDA black-box warning against being prescribed to children of Nikki’s age and with her condition. Nikki was sent home. Her condition did not improve and, that night, her temperature rose to 103.1 degrees Fahrenheit. The next morning, Mr. Roberson took her to a pediatrician, who sent the toddler home, despite a fever of 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit, and prescribed more Phenergan, as well as cough syrup with codeine — an opioid now restricted from children under 18 by the FDA due to its risks of causing breathing difficulties and death. Nikki’s toxicology report showed lethal levels of the respiratory-suppressing Phenergan still in her system.

The next night, Nikki was at the home of her maternal grandparents where she was supposed to stay. Despite being in a bitter battle with Mr. Roberson over custody of Nikki, her grandparents called Mr. Roberson and insisted he drive out to the country and pick the child up, which he did.

At home, Mr. Roberson put Nikki into bed — a mattress and box springs propped up on cinder blocks. In the early morning, he awoke when Nikki cried out. He found her on the floor at the foot of the bed, stayed up, and talked to her until they both fell back to sleep.

Later that morning, when the alarm went off, Robert discovered that Nikki was unconscious and her lips were blue. He grabbed her face, not knowing how to revive her, and tried to wake her. When she didn’t respond, he brought Nikki to the emergency room where her heart was resuscitated and she was intubated. But by then, she had likely already experienced brain death, which occurs after 10-12 minutes of oxygen-deprivation.

3. Symptoms of Mr. Roberson’s autism were used against him.

Mr. Roberson left school after completing 8th grade with undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder — which impacts how people communicate and interact with others. Symptoms of autism can include avoiding eye contact, “unusual” mood or emotional reactions, the appearance of indifference, fixation on details that strike others as “abnormal,” and difficulty expressing feelings.

Hospital staff, who did not know that Mr. Roberson has autism, were suspicious of his flat affect and interpreted his response to his daughter’s condition as lacking emotion. They viewed his inability to explain Nikki’s condition as a sign that he must be lying.

  • “I am doing what I can so long as I have a breath to correct a grossly unjust situation.”

Dr. Guthkelch

4. Misguided SBS diagnoses prevailed.

The same doctor in Palestine who had treated Nikki for vomiting, coughing, and diarrhea by prescribing Phenergan treated her again, when Mr. Roberson rushed her to the emergency room. After a CT scan on Nikki’s head showed bleeding under the dura and brain swelling (two of the alleged triad of SBS symptoms), the doctor concluded that it would be “basically impossible” for Nikki’s condition to be caused by a fall out of bed or anything other than abuse.
Because the local hospital in Palestine was not equipped to treat Nikki, she was transported on life support to Dallas Children’s Hospital, where her case was referred to a child abuse pediatrician. This doctor did not review Nikki’s medical history; she spoke only to law enforcement and the maternal grandparents who insisted Nikki had been “totally well.” Upon reviewing Nikki’s CT scans, she saw no fractures of any kind and no neck injuries, but she saw the triad of conditions she considered to be a certain indicator of SBS. The doctor “diagnosed” violent shaking as the one and only possible cause. She then gave an affidavit about her SBS diagnosis to law enforcement, who arrested Mr. Roberson before Nikki’s autopsy was even performed.

The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy did not have any information about Nikki’s extensive medical history. She was also not aware of the CT scans, which showed a single, minor impact on the back right of Nikki’s head (consistent with Mr. Roberson’s report of a fall), nor did she have Nikki’s toxicology results, which would have shown toxic levels of Phenergan. 

Robert Roberson with his daughter Nikki before she passed away. (Image courtesy of the Roberson family)

Robert Roberson with his daughter Nikki before she passed away. (Image courtesy of the Roberson family)

5. The jury was presented with unfounded claims of child abuse. 

At trial, one nurse claimed she saw signs of sexual abuse in Nikki’s case, though no doctors or other medical professionals involved in Nikki’s care observed any such signs and testing from a sexual assault kit produced no substantiating evidence. The nurse, who presented herself as a “Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner” (SANE), was, in fact, not SANE-certified and offered her personal views on pedophiles in her testimony, further stoking the unfounded claims of child abuse against Mr. Roberson.

6. Top neuropathologists and forensic pathologists support that Nikki died of natural and accidental causes.

In 2016, a week before Mr. Roberson’s scheduled execution date, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed his execution based, in part, on a then new law permitting legal challenges based on changes in science used to obtain convictions. His case was sent back to the trial court, which conducted a nine-day evidentiary hearing in 2021. There, experts explained that SBS had been discredited and provided compelling evidence that Nikki died of natural and accidental causes. A pathologist testified that Nikki suffered from a severe form of undiagnosed viral pneumonia that has since been more widely studied due to COVID-19. Signs of Nikki’s advanced pneumonia were noted in her autopsy but, at the time, were unexplained. Tragically, unaware of Nikki’s pneumonia, her treating doctors prescribed her with high levels of prescription medication (found in autopsy toxicology results) that are now understood to be deadly in children of Nikki’s age and in her condition. And biomechanical evidence now shows that short falls like Nikki’s can cause severe injury and even death, an explanation for Nikki’s condition that was vehemently rejected by every medical witness who had testified at her trial.     

7. Mr. Roberson deserves a fair shot at justice before it’s too late. 

The trial court ignored new evidence from six expert witnesses and rubber-stamped the prosecution’s 17-page proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, which relied almost exclusively on the outdated scientific evidence introduced at the 2003 trial and conducted when the medical establishment accepted unquestioningly that the triad of intracranial conditions observed in Nikki could be used to “diagnose” shaking and abuse.

While the State has not yet sought a new execution date, his life is still in jeopardy. Mr. Roberson has never had a true chance at justice in this case — his federal right to due process and a fair trial were violated by the State’s introduction of false and misleading forensic science. Actual science — supported by studies and empirical testing — has exposed that no crime occurred here. 

Mr. Roberson must have his actual innocence claim fairly considered by a state actor before Texas makes a tragic, irreversible mistake. Add your name to stop this injustice.

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