It only took Hiawatha Robinson Jr.’s attorneys a day to put up their defense against a case local prosecutors have been laying out for the past three weeks.
Calling only six witnesses, Jeff Deen started and finished his client’s half of the proceedings on Wednesday.
With both sides resting, closing arguments began Thursday morning in Mobile County Circuit Court and the case is now in the hands of the jury. Robinson is accused of sodomizing and murdering his 8-year-old daughter, Hiawayi Robinson.
Prosecutors have yet to produce any forensic or DNA evidence linking him to the crime scene, and as a result, Deen spent most of his time addressing circumstantial evidence as well as previous testimony about Robinson’s relationship with his daughter and his demeanor in the wake of her disappearance on Sept. 16, 2014.
The majority of the defense witnesses were members of Robinson’s family, including his mother, Merlene Robinson Howard, and three of Hiawayi’s young cousins.Throughout the trial, Deen has brought up other men close to Hiawayi’s mother, Yosha Populus, whom he says police never investigated with the same intensity they used to question Robinson.
One such person was identified as Mike Robinson. Though he is of no relation to the defendant, Mike was said to an acquaintance of Populus’. When asked, Howard said Mike once prompted her to keep Hiawayi for “about a month” when Populus became concerned over his behavior.
“He jumped on Yosha and broke the windows out her car, then she asked me if I’d keep Hiawayi,” Howard testified. “She parked her car at the house to keep Mike from smashing up the rest of it.”
Shamia Nobles, 15, is one of Robinson’s nieces. She testified to having heard Hiawayi complain about “Mike” in the past. Nobles only elaborated to say Hiawayi “didn’t like him at all, but added that she had shared the same information with police when she was interviewed.
Nobels’ older sister Alexis told jurors Hiawayi was often unsupervised while playing outside of her apartment complex in Prichard. Alexis, who said she used to frequent the complex, claimed she used to “smoke weed” with Hiawayi’s grandmother there while Hiawayi was playing.
Hiawayi’s grandmother, Brenda Populus, is one of the last people that saw her alive on the day she disappeared, though she has previously denied questions from the defense about using drugs in the apartment and having “a drinking problem.”
One thing all the defense witnesses agreed on was the relationship Robinson had with his daughter, which was characterized as “close” if at times infrequent.
“They had the best relationship,” Shamia said. “She loved him.”
Part of the state’s case alleged Hiawayi had been sexually abused prior to her disappearance and death, which was later confirmed in testimony from two forensic pathologists and a child abuse expert from the University of South Alabama.
However, the Nobles sisters said they never saw Robinson “go off alone” anywhere with his daughter and Robinson’s mother made similar statements to the jury. All three testified that they’d never noticed anything unusual or “not right’ about Hiawayi’s relationship with her father.
Robinson himself declined the opportunity to take the stand, leaving his girlfriend Tasha Parker as the final witness for the defense.
Parker’s home in Semmes and one of her vehicles – a red Tahoe Robinson frequently drove — became important links in the case after they were searched by the FBI. The Tahoe was central to several pieces of evidence presented by the prosecution.
A vehicle that appears to be the same make, model and color was captured on surveillance video from the Best Future convenience store on the day Hiawayi went missing. Footage from a separate camera shows Hiawayi entering the same store at approximately the same time, which is the last time she is known to have been alive.
Testimony from investigators suggested the car was very similar to the one Robinson admitted to driving that day, but the camera’s angle did not capture an image of the driver nor the license plate.
Robinson’s mother identified the vehicle in that video as her son’s during Assistant District Attorney Tandice Hogan’s cross-examination, though Deen later pointed out Howard was unaware of the context or location of the photo. Other defense witnesses said it only “looked similar,” and couldn’t say for certain it was Robinson’s
The Tahoe is also significant to the case because FBI agents found a clear plastic hair bead in one of the vehicle’s track during a search in 2014. After being tested by the FBI, the bead was shown to have identical chemical and physical characteristics to beads found at the crime scene and in Hiawayi’s hair.
In pre-recorded interviews with law enforcement and in the courtroom, Robinson’s defense for the bead has been that Parker kept several beads around her house and vehicles because of her daughter and younger female cousins.
When the FBI agents searched Parker’s house they seized cleaning supplies, some of Robinson’s clothes, footage from the home’s security cameras, marijuana and drug paraphernalia but found no hair beads of any kind.
On the stand, Parker said claimed there were hair beads in her home that day.
Deen displayed photos taken during the FBI’s search of the house, including one showing a container in an upstairs bedroom Parker claimed to have kept beads, braids, barrettes and bows in. Parker presented three small bags of hair beads as evidence, one of which contained clear plastic beads similar to those found at the crime scene.
While the prosecution pointed out there was no way to prove the beads hadn’t been purchased after the FBI searched the house, Parker maintained they were there the whole time — disagreeing with the prosecution about the thoroughness of the FBI’s search.
Deen went on to walk Parker through several clips from her home’s surveillance footage taken after Robinson came home around 7 p.m. on the evening Hiawayi was reported missing.
The film shows Robinson pulling into the driveway before parking the Tahoe out of the camera’s field of view. Once inside, he makes several trips to the laundry room and appears to change clothes at least once.
However, Parker testified that she found none of that to be unusual and said she didn’t notice anything strange about his behavior when she spoke to him later that night either.
During cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Wright pointed out that Parker “still had a relationship” with Robinson.
Jurors heard closing arguments Thursday morning after 10 days of evidence and testimony.
Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Wright began the day’s proceedings with a procedural request to presiding Judge Charlie Graddick — asking to allow the jury to find the defendant guilty of sodomy in the first degree if they could not reach a consensus on the murder charge.
Previously, sodomy was an element to the felony murder charge, suggesting Robinson unintentionally killed his 8-year-old daughter Hiawayi during an act of sexual abuse. Graddick allowed the request.
Before the jury was dismissed for lunch, prosecutors acknowledged the case was built upon circumstantial evidence, but encouraged the jury to consider each detail like a piece of a puzzle that together paints a picture of the crime.
“We can prove it all through circumstantial evidence,” Wright said. “Nowhere under the order of the law do we have to prove why this happened. You’re not going to have DNA, you’re not going to know the exact cause and manner of death. Circumstantial evidence is a lot of things brought together to make a picture of the puzzle, that’s why we brought in 67 witnesses to testify.”
Wright went on to say that when considered together, “all the facts, all the evidence” proves Robinson murdered his daughter.
Meanwhile, Deen likened the case against Robinson to that of the Scottsboro Boys, Richard Jewell, the one-time suspect in the 1996 Olympic Park bombing, and the parents of JonBenet Ramsey, who were also under investigators’ microscope after the murder of their daughter in 1996.
Deen removed his jacket and held it in front of the jury, saying Robinson was protected by a “cloak of innocence,” unless prosecutors could prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, arguing they’d failed to do so.
Both sides recapped the timeline of Hiawayi’s disappearance and her father’s whereabouts, while also briefly reviewing all the evidence in the case.
Wright emphasized the testimony of medical examiners and expert witnesses as well as video evidence from the Best Future store showing a vehicle similar to Robinson’s Tahoe at the place Hiawayi was last seen alive.
Wright also deconstructed the defense’s alternate theories, saying not one was supported by any evidence, circumstantial or otherwise.
The jury was expected to return to court at 2 p.m. for instructions before their deliberations begin.
Gabe Tynes contributed to this report