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DNA testing helps clear jailed man

TAMPA — On the morning deputies led a shirtless Kenneth Robinson down his driveway and off to jail, he gave neighbors a tiny smile.

It's a mistake, he said.

"He seemed awfully damned relaxed about it," neighbor Richard Stern said. "If it was a mistake, I'd be mad as hell."

But Robinson, 43, was right. He didn't rob that bank. Nor did he break into that medical office, stab that doctor or steal that Lexus.

And after he spent nearly four months in jail, prosecutors dropped the charges.

Luckily for Robinson, someone else kept using the same scheme to rob banks while he was in jail. And the DNA found at the original crime scene wasn't his.

It's always good when the justice system corrects a mistake before an innocent person is convicted, said Chris Watson, felony bureau chief for the Hillsborough County Public Defender's Office.

But, he said, "lots of times in cases like this there is no DNA evidence."

• • •

About 8 a.m. on Oct. 7, two women arrived for work at Mercantile Bank on N Dale Mabry Highway in Carrollwood.

Inside, a masked man who had climbed through a broken window confronted them, authorities said. He told them to put cash in a pillowcase.

He took one teller's car keys but couldn't start the car, so he ran a few hundred yards north to an office park.

There, he smashed through the glass panel in the front door of chiropractor Scott Hegseth's office.

As the receptionist and a patient screamed, Hegseth tackled the intruder. The man stabbed Hegseth with a screwdriver, inflicting two small punctures to his arm and back, authorities said. Then he ran out with the keys to the patient's Lexus and drove off.

He didn't get far. Near Dale Mabry and Fletcher Avenue, a dye pack exploded inside the pillowcase. The robber ditched the car and ran.

Finding the abandoned Lexus, deputies brought in a bloodhound named Ruby. The tracking dog led them about a half-mile to Nundy Road, Robinson's street.

Within minutes, the street filled up with sheriff's cruisers. Deputies fanned out, knocking on doors.

At Robinson's home, his girlfriend told deputies she was alone, sheriff's Capt. J.R. Burton said. A little later, deputies returned to do a safety check at the house and asked if they could look around.

Inside, they found Robinson coming out of the shower, Burton said. He fit the description of the robber. They also found business cards from local banks at the house.

Finally, they brought the chiropractor's receptionist to the scene. She identified Robinson as the man who stabbed her boss.

"We pursued this case in good faith," Burton said. "We followed evidence where it took us, and when we had probable cause, we acted on probable cause."

Robinson said he was innocent. And he repeated it in the months that followed.

"He was very firm about it, but he was very respectful," said prosecutor Matthew Smith, who remembered Robinson from one of his three DUIs. (Robinson's record also includes convictions on charges of theft, battery, trespassing and driving with a suspended license.)

Robinson declined to comment for this article, saying he was in touch with a lawyer. But in two letters to Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta, he said the case threatened everything he had.

Robinson said his parents raised him to understand the value of education. He said he went to Tampa Catholic High School, attended Tulane and Dillard universities and served in the U.S. Army. He has worked as a loan analyst, mortgage broker, event promoter and, more recently, a self-employed detailer, according to jail records.

Robinson wrote that he had a fiancee, a 3-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son he was helping to prepare for college. But the false allegations made him feel violated, he said.

"Instead of the facts being adjusted to fit the theories," he wrote, "the theories need to be adjusted to fit the facts."

That, officials say, is exactly what happened.

• • •

After Robinson's arrest, investigators sent samples of DNA evidence to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for analysis.

But the turnaround wasn't immediate, and on Jan. 5, there was another robbery.

As in the first holdup, the robber entered the American Momentum Bank on N Florida Avenue through a broken window and waited for employees to arrive. He also demanded an employee's car.

Sheriff's detectives knew Robinson didn't commit the second robbery. Could he have worked with someone else? Or was he innocent?

"If we have the wrong man in jail, we take that very, very seriously," Burton said. Investigators contacted prosecutors and made "every effort" to speed up the DNA analysis.

The robber picked up the pace, too.

On Jan. 9, it was a SunTrust Bank in Temple Terrace. He made off with $8,900 and an employee's vehicle.

On Feb. 17, a robber stole $40,593 from a Wachovia Bank in Temple Terrace. As in the previous three holdups, the thief broke in before the bank opened and waited for tellers to arrive.

Within days, lab results gave detectives a break.

No DNA from Robinson — by then released on his own recognizance at the request of prosecutors — was found on the pillowcase from the first robbery.

But DNA from someone else — an ex-convict named Michael P. Weston — turned up on a mask discarded at the second bank.

On Feb. 19, detectives arrested Weston, who told investigators he committed all four robberies and worked alone.

Burton said the system worked.

He can't say what Ruby the bloodhound tracked from the Lexus to Robinson's neighborhood. But he does say the dog has often found missing people deputies couldn't.

He also said deputies acted on "reasonable suspicion" when they returned to Robinson's home and found him inside. There were similarities in appearance: Weston and Robinson are both in their early 40s and bald, with goatees. Robinson is three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier.

Plus investigators had what seemed to be a solid eyewitness identification and the business cards that suggested an interest in banks.

"Had I been out there under these circumstances, I would have done the same thing, and I'm a 30-year law enforcement officer," Burton said. "Should we have done anything differently? I can't say that we should have."

• • •

Chiropractor Scott Hegseth said he was surprised at how strong the case against Robinson looked and how quickly it fell apart.

"It just seemed so cut and dried," he said. "Thank God we have DNA now."

But there is one more twist.

If anyone can appreciate the time Robinson spent in jail saying he didn't do it, it might be the man who replaced him there.

Weston, 44, of Tampa, now faces numerous counts of armed robbery, carjacking, armed burglary, armed kidnapping, aggravated battery and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He is being held without bail.

It is not his first time in jail. He was released from state prison in March 2008 after serving 20 months for burglary, grand theft and aggravated assault.

And in 2003, authorities arrested Weston on charges that he robbed a dry cleaner at gunpoint.

But the victim described a robber taller and heavier than Weston. And his attorney challenged the photo lineup used to identify him.

Weston passed three polygraphs. Prosecutors dropped the charges.

And after eight months, as fellow inmates applauded, Weston walked out of jail a free man.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Arleen Spenceley contributed to this report.

DNA testing helps clear jailed man 03/09/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 11, 2009 10:39am]
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