BOISE — Attorneys for the only woman on Idaho’s death row say Robin Lee Row’s triple murder conviction should be thrown out because her trial attorneys didn’t have the time or money to develop evidence that Row’s brain had atrophied, and the damage may have hindered her decision-making abilities.
Row, now 52, was convicted of murdering husband Randy Row, 34, and her children from a previous marriage, Joshua Cornellier, 10, and Tabitha Cornellier, 8, by setting their duplex on fire in 1992. Row had two other children who died years earlier — a baby who investigators said died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and a son named Keith who was killed in a 1980 California house fire that investigators ruled accidental.
Fourth District Judge Alan Schwartzman sentenced Row to death in 1993, calling her a pathological liar and citing her purchase of $276,000 worth of life insurance for her family the year before they died.
“Robin Row’s actions represent the final betrayal of motherhood and embody the ultimate affront to civilized notions of maternal instinct,” Schwartzman said during her sentencing. “Maternal ’pedocide’ — the killing of one’s own children — is the embodiment of the cold-blooded, pitiless slayer — a descent into the blackened heart of darkness.”
Row’s appeals attorney, Teresa Hampton, told U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill on Thursday that her client’s trial attorneys didn’t do enough to develop evidence that could have resulted in a lesser sentence.
“There is significant and powerful mitigating evidence that should have been developed at trial,” she said.
Row’s childhood was marred by long-term sexual abuse and mentally ill family members, and her own medical history included evidence of mental illness, including serious suicide attempts, Hampton said.
But Hampton said a CT scan showing Row had brain atrophy is “the major red flag in this case” that, if explored, could have changed the outcome. Brain atrophy is a loss of brain cells and the connections between them, and it can occur for a number of reasons, including trauma and disease. The damage left by atrophy can sometimes lead to mental illness, dementia and other problems.
Row’s trial attorneys did ask the court for money to hire an expert to evaluate Row’s brain function and history, but the trial judge refused their request and instead referred them to the public defender’s budget, Hampton said. The judge also refused to allow them additional time to investigate on their own, she said.
But Jessica Lorello, the deputy attorney general representing the state, said Row’s trial attorneys were never deprived the money or the time they needed to come up with mitigating evidence.
“The court’s position always was, ’I don’t know why you can’t take this out of the public defender’s budget,”’ Lorello said. “In terms of that social history evidence … the court determined it ultimately wouldn’t have made a difference.”
Winmill said he would take the matter under advisement and could have a ruling in the next several weeks.
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