Thirteen years ago, Valessa Robinson was a dark mystery — a teenage girl from the comfortable suburbs convicted in the stabbing death of her own mother, the body left stuffed in a garbage can while the girl and her friends partied.
Jurors saw Robinson at the defense table dressed in good-girl clothes — Mary Janes, pastel sweaters, tights. They also heard testimony about a rebellious 15-year-old deep into drugs, ugly to her mother and mad for a sinister older boy.
Guilty, they said, of the lesser charge of third-degree murder, sparing her from living the rest of her life behind bars.
On Friday, at the still young age of 30, Robinson is expected to walk out of state prison a free woman, having served the bulk of her 20-year sentence on convictions involving the 1998 murder of her mother.
During her early time in prison, she had some disciplinary reports for threats, contraband and sex acts. But she also took courses on fixing cars and building character, taught aerobics to fellow inmates, cut off her hair for Locks of Love and studied nutrition — a field she may pursue once she's out, according to Dee Ann Athan, a former attorney who has stayed close to Robinson.
"It's a bit of a disparity, isn't it?" said Rick Terrana, who represented Robinson's then-boyfriend, Adam Davis. Davis' death sentence has twice been upheld by the Florida Supreme Court.
"It's unfortunate that the person who in my opinion was the most culpable got the least sentence of all," he said. "For Christ's sake, it was her own mother."
Vicki Robinson was a bubbly real estate agent and single mom who struggled to raise Valessa in a comfortable Carrollwood neighborhood of manicured lawns and caged pools.
Mrs. Robinson was in her nightgown that June night when she encountered her daughter, Davis and their friend Jon Whispel in her kitchen. Davis attacked her with a bleach-filled syringe. When that didn't work, he stabbed her with a knife handed to him by Whispel, according to testimony.
Whispel said Valessa Robinson straddled her mother on the floor to help hold her down.
According to Whispel — who is serving a 25-year sentence as part of a plea deal and not due for release until 2020 — it was Robinson who hatched the idea of killing her mother in the first place as the three sat at Denny's earlier that night.
Vicki Robinson had been struggling for a solution and was planning to put her daughter in a Christian residential school for girls called Steppin' Stone Farm.
"I don't know all the workings of that mother-daughter relationship," said John Marsicano, then a detective with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. "But from what we can determine, (Vicki Robinson) had the best of intentions in the world."
Her father, Charles Robinson, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Pam Bondi, a prosecutor on the case who has since become Florida's attorney general, said Tuesday in an email statement, "Valessa is still young and my hope is that she will now lead a productive and law-abiding life."
The judge, J. Rogers Padgett, has since retired.
"What can you say?" he said Tuesday. "She served her sentence."
Padgett presided over high-profile cases from serial killers to sex teacher Debra Lafave. Asked about Robinson, he said he figured her to be "probably . . . a 15-year-old sociopath."
"The enormity of it — to value the love of this guy more than the love of her mother? That's not at all normal."
Athan, Robinson's then-attorney, has likened what happened that night to a perfect storm — the struggle between mother and daughter, Davis and Whispel in the house, the LSD they took.
In her opening statement to the jury, she called the two, both 19 at the time of the murder, "men," and Robinson a "child." Athan pointed to sinister-looking posters of them and then to Robinson at the defense table.
"These men," she said, "murdered her mom. And now they want to blame her."
Tuesday, she said Robinson worked to make the best of her prison time.
"She's not thuggy. She's very well-spoken. She's smart. She's taken a really bad situation and made it a positive," Athan said.
Athan said she and Robinson don't talk about her mother, but Athan said she believes Robinson is remorseful and wishes she had stopped what happened that night. She believes Robinson misses her mother.
Asked if there has been any connection between Robinson and Davis — the boy she swore her mother would never separate her from — Athan said, "No. She was over that before the trial."
Though Robinson did not testify in her own defense and has largely refused interviews, she did talk to 48 Hours. She denied her own guilt.
"The public thinks I'm some kind of devil child," she said.
Athan does not expect Robinson to speak to reporters after her release from Homestead Correctional Institution near Miami. "She wants her privacy. She wants to get past that."
After she is released, Robinson intends to move to Mississippi, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
But if she does speak out, Athan said, it could help teenagers headed down a dark path.
"But that," she said, "has got to come from her."
Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected] or (813)226-3376.