Psychiatric Report Fails to Lessen Term : Woman Resentenced for Murdering Her 2 Sons

Times Staff Writer

Debra Sue Robles, the El Cajon woman who ignored a judge’s and lawyer’s entreaties to withdraw her plea of guilty to murdering her two sons, was resentenced Tuesday to a maximum term of 30 years to life in prison.

Superior Court Judge Richard Huffman ordered Robles to serve two consecutive terms of 15 years to life. He acknowledged Robles’ long history of mental illness but concluded that state law does not permit him to order concurrent terms.

The judge, however, said wearily as he commenced imposing the sentence: “I’m not sure that any one person, simply by appointment to a job, inherits the wisdom to deal with a problem like Ms. Robles’.”

Robles, who is 28 and has a psychiatric history stretching back to the age of 13, pleaded guilty in March to the May, 1980, and January, 1985, suffocation deaths of her two severely disabled sons.


The cause of their deaths had gone virtually undetected until January, one year after the second killing. Then Robles, saying she could no longer bear the guilt, walked into the El Cajon police headquarters and confessed.

Huffman sentenced her in May to 30 years to life. But he revoked the sentence just days later after the San Diego County district attorney’s office received a late psychiatrist’s report concluding that Robles was insane at the time of the murders.

At that time, Huffman also appointed a special attorney to discuss with Robles whether she wished to withdraw her plea and fight the case. Against the advice of that lawyer and the reservations of Huffman, Robles insisted she wanted to plead guilty.

On Tuesday, Huffman resentenced her, as her parents and sister looked on. First, the prosecutor described Robles as a threat to public safety who killed for convenience, and the defense described her as a pitiful woman driven by psychic demons.


“Debra would not have done what she did to her children except through the operation of a diseased mind,” defense lawyer Michael Popkins said. " . . . Debra’s plans, if they were plans, were the plans of a diseased mind.”

“The reason for the killings was selfish,” countered Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Anear. “The defendant didn’t want to deal with the problems of handicapped children.”

Robles’ elder son, John, had cerebral palsy, which Robles attributes to an overdose of the psychotropic drug she gave him at 10 months old. Her younger son, Matthew, had hydrocephaly, which she believes resulted from her attempt to terminate her pregnancy at seven months.

Matthew died when he was 4 months old; according to Robles, she suffocated him when he would not stop crying. John died at age 6; according to Robles, she suffocated him, too, enraged by his severe bout of vomiting.


Coroners’ reports attributed both deaths to natural causes. Robles’ husband, Vincent, was not home when the murders occurred and has not been charged with responsibility. Separated from his wife since her confession, he recently filed for divorce.

In 80 pages submitted to the court Tuesday, Popkins dwelt at length on Robles’ psychiatric history, which has included diagnoses ranging from schizophrenia to borderline psychosis, and years of therapy and psychiatric medication.

Popkins and the three sets of psychiatrists who examined Robles characterized her as an extraordinarily self-destructive woman. They said she suffers from a poor self-image formed in childhood and a dangerous inability to rein in her impulses.

As examples of Robles’ self-destructiveness, which Popkins believes culminated in the killings of the children, he cited actions documented in Robles’ medical records, including swallowing glass, jumping out windows and cutting open her head.


“I implore the court in this case to exercise mercy and compassion,” Popkins said to Huffman. “It certainly isn’t fair to sentence a person with Debra’s mental history . . . the same as another person who commits two second-degree murders who is not as mentally diseased as Debra.”

But Anear argued that Robles’ mental illness had been taken into account in her plea bargain: Though she was charged originally with first-degree murder, prosecutors reduced the charges to second-degree murder in return for her plea. Under the law, second-degree murder is not premeditated.

Anear further quoted from psychiatrists’ reports relating Robles’ actions to a “wish to do away with an unpleasant reality.” He also quoted one psychiatrist’s reference to her “homicide-suicide cathexis,” or psychic focus on homicide and suicide.

Estimating that Robles could be paroled within 7 1/2 years if Huffman agreed to Popkins’ request for concurrent 15-year terms, Anear argued: “We’re taking a real gamble with the safety of the citizens of the community.”


Consecutive terms offer “more of an insurance policy,” he said.

In the end, Huffman said he could not ignore the fact that the murders were separate, distinct and five years apart. Further, he noted that the state Legislature recently broadened the definition of murder to include less “clarity of thought.”

“And I must confess that I believe the defendant requires, because of her condition, lengthy incarceration to address the destructive impulses that may include (as they have in the past) vulnerable human beings,” he said.

He added, “It’s obvious that mental health intervention has been useless” and may “continue to be useless throughout the rest of her life.”