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‘She Wants to Be Punished,’ Lawyer Says : Robles Refuses to Alter Plea in Deaths of Sons

Times Staff Writer

Ignoring the advice of a specially appointed lawyer and the warnings of a Superior Court judge, Debra Sue Robles on Tuesday opted to retain her plea of guilty to charges that she murdered her two young sons.

Robles confirmed her plea despite a prosecution psychiatrist’s report that she was insane at the time of the murders. The report, completed after Robles’ sentencing, prompted Judge Richard Huffman to vacate the sentence and give her an opportunity to reconsider.

“I want to stay with my plea,” the 28-year-old El Cajon woman told Huffman tersely during a brief hearing in San Diego Superior Court. A lawyer for Robles, Frank Nageotte, said Robles had changed her mind on the matter four times in the last week.

Her final decision--to plead guilty to two counts of second-degree murder under a plea bargain with the district attorney’s office--went against Nageotte’s advice that Robles accept Huffman’s offer to withdraw her plea and begin the case again.

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Even Huffman said he, too, had reservations about Robles’ decision. But he said in court: “While I might not personally agree with her selection of the alternatives, I do not have the right to make her do something different.”

Huffman said he will resentence Robles on June 24.

Robles, who has a history of mental illness and institutionalization stretching back to when she was 13 years old, pleaded guilty in March to killing her severely disabled sons. Their deaths occurred five years apart, and Robles had never been charged.

Then, in January, a year after the second death, she spontaneously turned herself in to police, saying she could no longer bear her guilt. In a plea bargain, Robles pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder.

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On May 7, Huffman sentenced Robles to 30 years to life in prison. Robles’ lawyer at the time, Michael Popkins, had asked for a lighter term, citing another psychiatrist’s conclusion that Robles was mentally ill, but not legally insane.

But two days after the sentencing the district attorney’s office received a report from Dr. Wait Griswold, who had examined Robles for the prosecution. Griswold’s report, concluding that Robles was insane, had been delayed in Griswold’s office.

The new report raised the possibility that Robles might have been incompetent when she pleaded guilty, and provided evidence that could be useful in a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. So Huffman vacated the sentence and appointed an independent defense lawyer, Nageotte, to help Robles decide what to do.

On Tuesday, Nageotte said Robles’ decision ran contrary to his advice.

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“Her best interest is clearly the opposite decision,” he said in court. “I understand she has a strong need to have this matter finalized, and I’ve detected in her a strong need for punishment. . . . But I firmly believe she’s making a grievous error.”

Nageotte said afterward that he had advised Robles to withdraw her plea, in the belief that the psychiatric report might win her a more favorable plea bargain from the prosecutor. Asked why Robles had decided to retain her plea, Nageotte said she is “a deeply troubled woman.”

He said she finds the court process difficult and painful, and “carries a great deal of guilt, not just because of the deaths of her children.”

“Part of her illness is she wants to be punished,” Nageotte said.

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