Robert Roberson with daugh­ter Nikki

“I testified for the prosecution and helped send Roberson to death row in 2003. For 20 years, I have thought that something went very wrong in Roberson’s case and feared that justice was not served. If there is no movement to correct this injustice, I fear myself and others will carry our guilt eternally,”

said Brian Wharton, the retired super­vis­ing detec­tive in the orig­i­nal case.

In a May 23, 2024 op-ed published in The Dallas Morning News, Brian Wharton, the retired supervising detective in Robert Roberson’s case, urged Anderson County District Attorney Allyson Mitchell to reexamine the case and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to reexamine a pending motion on Mr. Roberson’s innocence claims, which have previously been denied. “It would be a terrible legacy for all of us to be associated with executing an innocent man based on a rush to judgment and bad science,” concluded Mr. Wharton. “We must prevent Texas from making a tragic, irreversible mistake.” 

Mr. Roberson’s conviction for the death of his two-year-old daughter, Nikki, centered around the now debunked theory of “shaken baby syndrome.” Mr. Wharton explains how the investigation largely relied on this “bad science” that was presented to the jury as “evidence-based science,” and highlights that there have been 32 exonerations of those wrongfully convicted under this theory, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Nikki’s autopsy had showed severe pneumonia – information that was not provided to Mr. Wharton during the investigation – for which she was taking medication that is no longer provided to children her age since it can cause “fatal breathing problems.” Mr. Wharton states that “[n]ow it is recognized that many naturally occurring diseases that cause oxygen deprivation, including pneumonia, as well as short falls with a head impact, can cause the same set of internal conditions that Nikki had.”  

Mr. Wharton also highlights several other troubling aspects of the case. For example, the jury was told that Nikki had been sexually abused, but this assertion relied solely on the speculation of one nurse without any corresponding evidence. During the case, Mr. Roberson’s flat affect puzzled Mr. Wharton, leading him to expect the defense to present evidence of some mental health impairment at trial – which didn’t happen. Only on appeal did the courts hear that Mr. Roberson had been diagnosed with autism, which would explain his affect and prevent the negative inference that he was unemotional about his daughter’s death. 


Brian Wharton, Retired detec­tive: We got it wrong in Robert Roberson’s death penal­ty case, The Dallas Morning News, May 232024;