Robert Roberson with daugh­ter Nikki. Courtesy of the Roberson family.

On June 17, 2024, Anderson County District Attorney Allyson Mitchell filed a motion to set an execution date for Texas death row prisoner Robert Roberson, despite his steadfast maintenance of innocence in the death of his two-year-old daughter. Mr. Roberson has spent more than 20 years on death row for a crime that, according to the Innocence Project, “never occurred and a conviction based on the outdated and now debunked shaken baby hypothesis.” New evidence indicates that Mr. Roberson’s daughter, Nikki, died from a combination of both accidental and natural causes. In a brief of opposition, Mr. Roberson’s attorneys argue that Nikki died from “severe undiagnosed pneumonia that caused her to cease breathing, collapse, and turn blue before she was discovered unconscious.” Rather than identifying this pneumonia, doctors prescribed Nikki with a dangerous medication that is no longer given to young children, as it is known to suppress respiration in already infected lungs. “There was a tragic, untimely death of a sick child whose impaired, impoverished father did not know how to explain what has confounded the medical community for decades,” the petition outlines.

At the time of DA Mitchell’s request for an execution date, Mr. Roberson’s Motion for Notice and Opportunity to Be Heard Before Any Execution Date is Set, requesting a court hearing, remains pending before Texas’ 3rd Judicial District Court. This motion explains that, since June 2016, Mr. Roberson’s attorneys have developed new evidence of his factual innocence in the death of his daughter. Mr. Roberson has another pending suggestion in front of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA), asking the Court to reconsider their previous ruling. The suggestion argues that another case, Ex parte Roark, also pending before the TCCA, shows that “the State conceded the falsity of virtually identical expert testimony on the shaken baby hypothesis.” Both Mr. Roberson and Mr. Roark were sentenced to death more than two decades ago using this theory and testimony from the same child abuse expert. The Dallas County prosecutor has conceded that Mr. Roark should receive a new trial because of changes to scientific knowledge, but DA Mitchell’s office has continuously argued that the science in Mr. Roberson’s case has not changed.

In 2003, there was a medical consensus that a child with a specific set of internal conditions, all of which were present in Nikki’s case, must have been shaken or struck with a blunt object. Mr. Roberson brought Nikki to the hospital and was unable to explain the issues that his chronically ill daughter faced. At the hospital, staff were unaware that Mr. Roberson has autism, and misconstrued his demeanor as lack of concern for his daughter. Using one physician’s hypothesis that Nikki’s death was the result of shaken baby syndrome, police arrested Mr. Roberson prior to an autopsy being performed. At trial, Mr. Roberson’s attorney ignored his claims of innocence, instead conceding to the prosecution’s argument that it was a “classic” shaken baby case, but that Mr. Roberson lacked intent to kill his daughter. The prosecution also presented misleading evidence from a nurse suggesting that Nikki was sexually assaulted, despite the fact that the medical examiner and further testing failed to confirm her speculations.

In 2013, the Texas legislature passed a law that allows prisoners to challenge their wrongful convictions “by showing that changes in the field of forensic science either undermined the integrity of the criminal trials that led to their convictions or exonerated the defendant.” Since the passage of this law, zero prisoners on Texas’ death row have successfully raised claims under this law, including Mr. Roberson. Gretchen Sween, one of Mr. Roberson’s attorneys, said that “each of the shaken baby premises used to convict and sentence Mr. Roberson to death, considered medical orthodoxy in 2003, has since been debunked by evidence-based science. The courts or Governor Abbott must stop this miscarriage of justice before it is too late.” Across the US, at least 18 states have formally exonerated parents and caregivers wrongfully convicted under the shaken baby hypothesis, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.