There are two competing narratives in the felony murder trial of Hiawatha Robinson Jr. — one of a father whose daughter fell victim to a “horrific death” at the hands of an unknown perpetrator in a dangerous neighborhood, and the other of a man who raped and murdered his own child and left her body in a pile of trash.
Since Robinson’s arrest in 2014, prosecutors have maintained that “while engaging in sodomy in the first degree, Hiawatha Robinson Jr. caused the death” of his 8-year-old daughter, Hiawayi Robinson.
In the opening minutes of the trial, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Wright told jurors forensic evidence indicated semen was present on the victim’s clothes and detected on swabs taken from the rectal and anal area.However, because “no sperm heads could be found,” a DNA sample was impossible to obtain and profile, leaving much of the prosecution’s case resting on Robinson’s whereabouts, demeanor and statements to police in the days following his daughter’s disappearance on Sept. 16, 2014.
“It wasn’t what I thought a father would be like. I was looking for him to feel like I felt,” Hiawayi’s grandmother, Brenda Populous, said of Robinson’s demeanor that day.
Populous was one of the last people to see Hiawayi alive and the first witness to testify against Hiawatha last week. On the stand, she said Robinson called Hiawayi that afternoon to talk about meeting so he could give her money for a birthday present.
After the conversation, Hiawayi left. According to her testimony, Populous believed at the time she was either with Robinson already or with another relative at the St. Stephens Woods apartment complex waiting for him to arrive.
When she realized her granddaughter wasn’t with either, Brenda said she called the police and then called her daughter, Yosha Populus — Hiawayi’s mother and the prosecution’s second witness.
“I had it in my mind she was in that complex, I just had to find her,” Yosha Populus said, describing her family’s initial efforts to locate Hiawayi the evening she went missing.
Like her mother, Yosha Populus described Robinson as “calm and quiet” until he was questioned by police and became upset. On the stand, Yosha Populus said she told Robinson it “[wasn’t] the time to be angry.”
“I was like, ‘calm down. They’re just trying to help us find our daughter,’” Yosha added.
Robinson’s defense attorney, Jeff Deen, claims his client was upset his daughter had been allowed to wander around unsupervised, but no matter the reason, testimony revealed Robinson’s behavior that day temporarily landed him in the back of a Prichard police cruiser in an attempt to calm him down.
In cross-examination, though, Deen moved to impeach Yosha Populus’ testimony based on a previous federal conviction and her admission to lying under oath to file a fraudulent claim following the BP oil spill.
Court records show she received more than $23,000 in undue compensation before pleading guilty to access fraud charges in 2013 — a scheme Deen said involved multiple falsified affidavits.
Another witness, Prichard Police Cpl. Tashaun Pettway, said Robinson was “calm and relaxed for the most part,” which “wasn’t normal for the situation.” To him, Robinson seemed aggravated by investigators’ questioning.
FBI Agent Laura Fields said Robinson was also “difficult” in her interview. It also “stood out” in her memory that Robinson voluntarily explained why he had changed clothes that day even though she never asked him.
When Hiawayi’s body was discovered, it was Fields who first notified her family, and she said there were “lots of tears” when she broke the news to her mother — describing it as “very dramatic” and “nothing [she] would want to relive.” In her second interaction with Robinson, though, Fields said he “asked about his driver’s license” but not his daughter’s murder investigation.
Yet another witness, Jasmine Brackett, claimed to be a friend of Robinson’s, though his testimony suggests his friend tried to give him a “heads up” that the FBI might want to speak to him.
According to Brackett, Robinson said he’d told the FBI they had seen each other the afternoon Hiawayi disappeared, which he wanted him to know in case he was interviewed too. He claimed to have seen Robinson near the time of his daughter’s disappearance driving a maroon Chevrolet Tahoe similar to one spotted in surveillance video taken from the Best Future gas station.
The same video system captured Hiawayi searching through the candy aisle at the store in the some of the last moments she was known to be alive. An employee of Best Future testified to voluntarily turning over the surveillance footage, which shows a maroon-colored Tahoe prosecutors believe Robinson frequently drove.
However, as Deen pointed out, the driver of the vehicle is never seen in surveillance video.
Additional security video was seized from the home Robinson shared with his girlfriend, Tasha Parker. In footage recorded the day of Hiawayi’s disappearance, Robinson can be seen making multiple trips to and from his home. He also changes clothes four times. The footage also captured Robinson returning home that night in a maroon Tahoe and making several trips to and from it and the home.
Other evidence included Robinson’s phone records as well as photographs of items found at the scene where Hiawayi’s body was discovered. Previously, investigators revealed plastic hair beads and pieces of black duct tape were found near her body.
In her opening statements, Wright said testing performed by the FBI determined those to be an identical physical and chemical match to a hair bead and roll of black duct tape found in a search of the Tahoe Robinson was driving.
As for Robinson’s phone records, digital forensics examiner, Paul Weathersby, told jurors at least seven calls and text messages were “missing” from Robinson’s phone but showed up in the records kept by his service provider. After being cross-examined by Deen, though, Weathersby told jurors he couldn’t “testify [they] were deleted,” only “missing.”
After four full days of testimony, prosecutors were still not done laying out the case against Robinson on Monday afternoon, and with a slew of witnesses still in the stable for the defense, the trial could last well into next week.
The trial also experienced an unexpected delay Aug. 30, when Robinson passed out and collapsed just before entering the courtroom on the fifth day of testimony.
Emergency medical personnel responded and Robinson was transported to Mobile Infirmary for treatment, though an initial evaluation showed no significant issues.
After the incident, courtroom personnel said the trial would likely be on hold a little more than half a day, though the actual time of the delay couldn’t be confirmed by to this publication’s print deadline.
Continuing coverage of the trial is available at lagniappemobile.com.