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Suspect's Cousin Says He Admitted to Burning Boy

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    Prosecutors inMontgomery County are trying to convince a judge that Don Willburn Collins -- now 28 years old -- should be tried as an adult for a crime he is accused of committing when he was 13 years old. (Published Tuesday, Mar 4, 2014)

    The cousin of a Southeast Texas man accused of dousing a boy with gasoline as a teenager in 1998 testified Monday her cousin confessed to her that he and another boy had been responsible for the attack.

    Prosecutors with the Montgomery County Attorney's office are trying to convince a judge that Don Willburn Collins -- now 28 years old -- should be tried as an adult for a crime he is accused of committing when he was 13 years old. Collins faces a murder charge in the death of Robert Middleton and is jailed on a $1 million bond.

    Authorities allege Collins poured gasoline on him on Middleton's 8th birthday and set him on fire near his home in Splendora, about 35 miles northeast of Houston. Middleton survived but was burned over 99 percent of his body and endured years of physical therapy and surgeries. He died in 2011 from skin cancer authorities say was caused by the burns.

    Collins' attorney questions the constitutionality of trying to move the case from juvenile to adult court. If state District Judge Kathleen Hamilton denies the transfer, that would end the case.

    Collins' cousin, Heather White, testified that on the evening after Middleton was burned, Collins told White that he and another boy had sexually molested Middleton and then tied him to a tree and threw gasoline on him.

    "Don Collins told me he threw the match on him," White said.

    The case was reopened, in part, because of a deposition Middleton gave two weeks before his death. For the first time, he accused Collins of sexually assaulting him before being set on fire. Collins also told another 8-year-old he was convicted of sexually assaulting that he would burn the boy like he did Middleton, authorities said.

    Earlier in the day, Colleen Middleton, Robert's mother, testified that when her son was first treated, he made nonsensical statements about who had burned him. But when Robert started getting better, his statements became consistent and clear about who had done this to him, she said.

    "There was no doubt at all in his mind it was Don," Colleen Middleton said.

    In a portion of Robert Middleton's video deposition that was played in court Monday, he said Collins sexually assaulted him two weeks before Collins threw gasoline on his face and set him on fire.

    "I started to get out of the trail, trying to get back home," said Robert Middleton, who had difficulty speaking.

    Collins' attorney, E. Tay Bond, questioned the reliability of Robert Middleton's statements as well as secondhand statements made by other witnesses.

    "There is simply no new credible evidence in this case," Bond said.

    The case should not be transferred to adult court, Bond said, because state law in 1998 said a juvenile had to be at least 14 years old for a capital felony offense case to be transferred to adult court. The law was changed in 1999 to lower the age to 10.

    Prosecutors allege the crime of murder did not take place until 2011, well after the law was changed. The law cannot be applied retroactively to Collins, Bond said.

    "This is unconstitutionally unfair and it should not be allowed," he said.

    Also testifying Monday was a former counselor with the Montgomery County juvenile probation department, Peggy Heath, who said another juvenile incarcerated with Collins when he was initially arrested told authorities that Collins had confessed to her about setting Middleton on fire.

    Also, ex-neighbors of Middleton at the time of the attack testified about first finding him.

    Laura Thomason said she was returning home from playing bingo when she saw Middleton collapse in the middle of the street after he had come out of a nearby wooded area. She recalled seeing his "skin dripping from his hands."

    Testimony could wrap up by Tuesday. Hamilton was expected to issue a ruling at a later date after testimony concludes.