Food Network winner who killed foster daughter sentenced to life in prison
Ariel Robinson convicted in beating death of 3-year-old Tori Smith
GREENVILLE, S.C. (FOX Carolina) - After a four-day trial, a former Food Network contestant accused of killing her foster daughter was sentenced to life in prison.
Ariel Robinson was convicted of homicide by child abuse in the death of 3-year-old Victoria “Tori” Rose Smith, who died at their home on Sellwood Circle in Simpsonville on Jan. 14, 2021. Prosecutors said Robinson severely beat the child with a belt which caused her to suffer internal bleeding.
The jury started deliberating around 12:20 p.m. on Thursday. After an hour and a half of deliberation, Robinson was found guilty. She was sentenced to life in prison.
Her husband, Jerry “Austin” Robinson who testified against her, took a plea deal and now faces a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison.
Below is a recap of the trial:
In closing arguments, Deputy Solicitor Christy Sustakovich said the evidence against Robinson is “overwhelming.”
“The only person who you’ve seen being cruel to Tori is this defendant,” Sustakovich said.
Sustakovich said the defendant’s husband, Jerry “Austin” Robinson, is a “criminal” who “did not protect Tori.” Austin Robinson has already pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting homicide by child abuse.
Ariel Robinson’s attorney, Bill Bouton, also talked about her husband and told the jury he has “credibility issues.” Mr. Robinson now faces a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison.
“He cut a deal,” Bouton told the jury. “There’s a big difference between ten years and life in prison. He had a lot to gain.”
Earlier, when Ariel Robinson took the stand, she was overcome with emotion during parts of her testimony. When her attorney asked what it was like to have 3-year-old Tori in the house, she became very emotional. Crying, Robinson said Tori was “a perfect child” and very easy to get along with.
Robinson claimed she never saw bruises on Tori’s body until later and became tearful when describing Tori as her “mini-me.”
When asked about her husband’s statements to police that she brutally beat Tori, she said “He was lying.” When asked why she told police that Tori’s 7-year-old brother caused Tori’s injuries, Robinson said he had caused bruises in the past and she was “trying to be helpful.” The defendant did not say her husband caused Tori’s bruises but did testify that he has “one of the scariest types of anger issues.”
The prosecution presented a Father’s Day social media post made by Robinson showing a photograph of her husband with Tori and a caption that includes “There’s not a daddy-daughter duo in the world who love each other more than these two right here” and “what an amazing daddy he is.”
In the post, Robinson said discipline of the children did not come from her husband.
The first witness called to the stand by the defense on Thursday was a former assistant pastor at Life Restoration Church who was familiar with the Robinsons and their parents. She testified that the defendant’s husband does not have a reputation for being truthful.
Robinson told the judge she does plan to testify in her own defense. The judge said Robinson’s testimony will take place Thursday morning. The defense began its case around 3:00 p.m. and called just one witness to the stand. The officer with the Simpsonville Police Department testified about responding to the Robinsons’ home and asking the defendant about the cameras placed in different rooms.
Earlier in the day, the jury watched footage from a Simpsonville police officer’s body camera captured shortly after Tori was taken to the hospital. The video showed the defendant in her home with officers as she explained the child’s bruises. In the video, Robinson attributed everything except the abdominal injuries to Tori’s older brother with “anger” issues. She is heard claiming she caused the abdominal bruises with her CPR compressions while trying to help after Tori appeared to be choking on water.
Judge Letitia Verdin warned people in the gallery about the graphic nature of photos to be shown. The photos were presented during the testimony of Greenville County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Ward, a forensic pathologist.
Dr. Ward testified that Tori was beaten with so much force it disrupted blood vessels, tore tissue from tissue and allowed blood to collect in her muscles and fat. He explained how this could lead to her death.
“If we lose enough blood, the heart doesn’t have enough volume to pump,” Dr. Ward said.
Dr. Ward testified that the injuries do not appear to have been inflicted over time but instead in one event. He also said the absence of any defensive injuries suggests someone was able to hold Tori’s hands to prevent her from shielding herself while inflicting the blows.
Two acquaintances of the Robinsons testified that they saw the defendant and Tori in the restroom at Life Restoration Church. Robinson’s husband, Jerry “Austin” Robinson, had previously told investigators that the fatal beating of Tori stemmed from an incident the night before when the child vomited on the way to a church service.
Jean Smith and Avery Santiago both testified that they saw Tori undressed in the restroom as Ariel Robinson appeared to wash a garment in the sink.
Smith said she asked Robinson if Tori was sick.
“She said, ‘No. She eats too much and makes herself throw up. It’s a game,’” Smith testified.
Santiago said Robinson gave her a similar response when she asked what happened and could hear Robinson tending to the child.
“I heard Ariel say ‘Oh, you’re cold. You’re cold. Girls that make themselves throw up deserve to be cold,’” Santiago testified.
Sgt. Scott Magaw with the Simpsonville Police Department was the first state witness called to the stand. He testified that he saw bruising on Tori’s body after responding to the home. Magaw testified that the defendant claimed the bruising to the abdomen was from her failed attempts to perform the Heimlich maneuver and that she attributed the leg bruising to a beating from Tori’s 7-year-old brother. He also testified that the defendant’s husband voluntarily approached law enforcement and told them that his wife beat the child with a brown, leather belt.
Jerry “Austin” Robinson was the first witness to take the stand after the jury’s lunchbreak. The prosecutor began by reviewing how he pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting homicide by child abuse a couple of weeks ago.
Austin Robinson testified about how he and the defendant wanted to expand their family through adoption and how Tori and her two older brothers moved into their home about two weeks after his wife returned from her appearance on the Food Network show “Worst Cooks in America.”
Robinson testified that his wife would discipline Tori with various belts or a wooden paddle when she was triggered by Tori’s eating habits.
“Sometimes I’d take a piece of (her) food just to help her out,” Robinson testified.
He testified about the last conversation he had with Tori.
“She was laying on the bed,” Robinson testified. “She told me she loved me and I said ‘I love you too.’ I said, ‘I promise this won’t happen again.’ She said ‘Okay.’”
Testimony began with photos from inside the Robinsons’ home where first responders found Tori unresponsive. The prosecution called a former sergeant with the Greenville County Forensic Division to the stand. Jonathan Hamilton, now a deputy coroner, testified about going to the Robinson family’s home to follow up on what had become an investigation into a case of child abuse or neglect.
The state’s second witness of the day was Beau Givens, with the Simpsonville Fire Department, who testified that he responded to a call about a drowning at the Robinsons’ house. Givens said he arrived to see a colleague performing CPR on the child and then took over with the chest compressions.
Givens said while he was tending to Tori, Robinson said Robinson claimed that Tori had been continuously drinking water before going limp.
As efforts continued to revive Tori, Givens testified that some of her clothing had to be removed, which then revealed the extent of bruising of her body.
Givens testified that Robinson volunteered an explanation by saying that Tori’s 7-year-old brother has anger issues and hits her.
“When she said that, that’s when I got concerned this is bad,” Givens.
Givens testified that he saw the older brother a short time later and remarked on his small stature.
“I don’t care if you give the kid a ball bat,” Givens said. “He’s not going to be able to do this much damage to the little girl.”
Paramedic Ken Koller with Greenville County EMS testified about performing additional measures to revive Tori, who showed no heart activity. He testified hearing Robinson attributing the bruises to her older brother. Koller testified the injuries seemed more consistent with what an adult would inflict.
“All this is from the brother?” Koller recalled saying.
The prosecution called Jaime Anderson-Pearson, a store manager with the CVS in Simpsonville, to the stand. Anderson-Pearson testified about a request from law enforcement for surveillance video that captured Austin Robinson’s visit to the store.
In a pretrial motion on Monday, a judge ruled to allow two of three body camera videos from the day of Smith’s death to be played in court. The Robinsons’ defense attorney did not want the videos admitted in court because he said Ariel Robinson was not read her Miranda rights before statements she made in the videos.
After jury selection wrapped up, opening statements started around 2:15 p.m. Fifteen jurors - three of them alternates - have been seated in the case.
“You’ll hear the devastating theory of events that go from Tori trying to eat some pancakes to a child beaten to a pulp,” said prosecutor Christy Sustakovich.
Prosecutors said Jerry “Austin” Robinson will testify in the trial about the beating they say led to Tori’s death.
“You’ll hear how Austin Robinson walked into the house and sees Ariel holding a belt above Tori,” Sustakovich said. “He says ‘Ariel, you’ve gone too far. You’ve gone too far this time.’”
The child suffered internal bleeding in her legs, photos of which have been ruled admissible in court.
William Bouton, Robinson’s defense attorney, urged the jury not to rush to judgment. He said his 30-year-old client is a former middle school teacher with a master’s degree from Clemson University. Bouton said the Robinsons met in high school, married and had two biological children of their own.
“These pictures of this poor child are horrific and I worry that you see these photos and your first instinct is, ‘I gotta hold somebody accountable’ and that’s not what your job is,” said Bouton. “Your job is to consider what the evidence is and make a determination that the state has proven that my client is the one who committed this crime.”
The state’s first witness was Cpl. Karlee Patrikis with the Simpsonville Police Department. The court played a recording captured by Patrikis’ body camera when she responded to the 911 call to the Robinsons’ home.
In the recording, Ariel Robinson is heard claiming that Tori’s 7-year-old brother, Jaden, who was also the Robinsons’ foster child, caused the injuries.
“She bruises really bad. She has sensitive skin. Her brother kicks her and kicks her. He has anger issues. He’s been in therapy for it,” Robinson says.
The second witness for the state was Investigator Jay Weibel, who testified about taking photos of Tori in the hospital, as life support and medication kept her alive. He said he did not believe Tori’s brother caused his sister’s injuries.
“It was learned that Jaden is a very small child and (with) his size compared to Tori’s...we didn’t feel that he was capable of inflicting that amount of damage or injury to Victoria,” Weibel testified.
If found guilty, Robinson could be behind bars for the rest of her life.
Robinson’s husband pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting homicide by child abuse on April 14. He will be sentenced after Ariel Robinson’s trial.
“We are extremely grateful to the jury for their close attention and work on this devastating case. This jury had to see and hear things that were truly horrific. We are very thankful for the verdict in this tragic case. There are no winners in a case like this one. We can’t bring Tori back but she will always live on in our memories. I’ve learned in these cases, the best you can hope for is justice and the jury brought exactly that. May sweet Victoria Rose Smith rest in eternal peace forever.”
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