Justice for Noelani: Higgins gets over 17 years in prison

Published 4:54 pm Wednesday, April 3, 2024

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Wednesday’s sentencing to run concurrently with Wisconsin sentence related to the death of Sierra Robinson


The man accused of killing two-year-old Noelani Robinson in 2019, has been found guilty and was sentenced in Mower County District Court Wednesday afternoon, the final chapter of a little girl’s tragic story.

Dariaz Lewis Higgins, 40, was sentenced to 210 months in prison or nearly 17 and a half years, on one felony count of second degree murder without intent. He must serve at least two-thirds of that sentence or 140 months in prison. A bittersweet conclusion to a case that’s gripped the communities of Austin and Blooming Prairie.

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“It’s just sad,” Mower County Attorney Kristen Nelsen said after the sentencing. “Yes, it’s done, but (Robinson’s) still gone.”

According to court records, Higgins petitioned to enter a guilty plea on March 29, a day after a demand for a speedy trial was introduced on March 28.

Higgins was accused of killing Noelani, his daughter, after the girl’s body was discovered in a ditch just outside of Blooming Prairie on March 15, 2019.

He is already serving a life sentence in Wisconsin for the shooting death of Noelani’s mother, 24-year-old Sierra Robinson, on March 11, 2019. Wednesday’s sentence will run concurrently to those sentences.

Noelani Robinson’s story has touched everybody associated with the case as facts came to light of how the two-year-old died. 

According to the court complaint, an autopsy conducted on Robinson concluded that the girl had died as a result of blunt force trauma to her head and that the injuries suffered both to her head and body were inconsistent with Higgins’ initial story that she had fallen off the toilet and died.

Emotionless throughout Wednesday’s hearing, Higgins gave a curt “yes” in admittance to striking the child with closed fists because he had  become frustrated with Noelani while staying at the Rodeside Inn & Suites in Austin, where it was determined she had died.

And when asked by Judge Natalie Martinez if he planned to disagree with the findings of Wednesday’s hearing, he answered only with “No ma’am.”

“When we took the plea she was referred to by her initials,” Nelsen said when addressing the court. “Noelani Robinson is so much more than her initials. This was a child who deserved so very much more than she ended up with.”

Prior to sentencing, Hevonte Robinson, uncle and brother to Noelani and Sierra, and Noelani’s grandmother Latosha Bryant, each gave victim impact statements.

“How traumatic all of this has been,” Hevonte said. “Losing a sister and a niece has changed my life drastically. It just didn’t affect southern Minnesota and immediate family, it touched the whole United States.”

“Thank God … my babies can rest now that he’s gotten his justice,” Bryant said. “Thank God justice has been done.”

The maximum sentence Higgins could have received in the case was 40 years, however, Minnesota sentencing guidelines stipulated the lesser sentence. 

Nelsen said afterwards that at no time was a plea deal sought by her office and added that even though Wednesday’s sentence couldn’t add any more time to Higgins’ Wisconsin sentences it could bring some resolution.

“We can’t punish him anymore, but we could get justice in her name,” Nelsen said.

The case was also a chance for resolution among law enforcement, including Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele, who was among the first on the scene when Noelani’s body was discovered.

“I think there’s that closure we’re looking for,” Thiele said. “I’ve been doing this job for 33 plus years. You don’t forget about things like this.”

The background

Higgins was sentenced on July 26, 2021, to a life sentence for first degree intentional homicide and 10 years in prison for attempted first degree intentional homicide with the two sentences ordered to run consecutively with no possibility for parole.  

However, an appeal to the sentence was entered on Feb. 20, 2023.

Higgins first appeared in Mower County District Court on March 28, and comes just over five years after Noelani’s body was discovered by a passerby in the east ditch north of the intersection of U.S. Highway 218 and Minnesota Highway 30 in Steele County. She had been wrapped in a blanket. 

Before that, Noelani was the subject of an Amber Alert issued by the Milwaukee Police Department on March 11, 2019 after Sierra’s death.

While Noelani’s body was discovered in Steele County, court documents reveal that she had actually been with Higgins at the Rodeway, where she had been killed, from Feb. 6, 2019 until about March 10, 2019, and was the reason the case was moved to Mower County from Steele County.  

An agent with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension questioned a witness who had known Higgins and learned that the witness had visited with Higgins during that time period at the Rodeway, indicating he had last spoken to him on March 9, 2019.  The witness also confirmed that it was Noelani with Higgins.  

In a statement to Milwaukee investigators, Higgins had positively identified Noelani and told the investigator the story about the fall from the toilet. 

He went on to say that he wrapped the girl’s body in blankets at the Rodeway, where she was kept before leaving her body in the ditch on March 10, 2019.

Nelsen said Wednesday that the community of Blooming Prairie has adopted the girl over these past few years and has helped maintain the shrine to Noelani alongside Highway 218.

“She continues to be loved,” Nelsen said of the community. “She has been shown the love of a community. I hope she will not be forgotten.”