The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Crime & Courts

March 23, 2012

Death penalty assessed against Chris Collings in Rowan Ford murder

Jury arrives at death penalty in 48 minutes

ROLLA, Mo. — Chris Collings did not appear to take it all that hard Friday night when Circuit Judge Mary Sheffield read the verdict, that the jury had decided he should pay the ultimate penalty for the murder of 9-year-old Rowan Ford.

His attorney, Charles Moreland, stood next to Collings, 37, as the death sentence was pronounced.

The defendant seemed intently interested as jurors filed back into the courtroom with their decision at 6:17 p.m., just as he had been throughout the two-week trial in Rolla. Still, his face betrayed little of what he might have been thinking in reaction.

If anything, he seemed prepared for the outcome.

A jury of seven women and five men chosen in distant Platte County and sequestered to hear the Barry County case required just 48 minutes of deliberation in the penalty phase after taking about four hours Tuesday night to find Collings guilty of first-degree murder.

The judge and bailiff ordered the courtroom and courthouse cleared after the reading of the verdict, and jurors were not immediately available for comment. But, outside the courthouse, Clint Clark, the Wheaton police chief and a key figure in the investigation of the girl’s murder, stopped to talk with reporters.

“Either way would have been difficult,” Clark said of the jury’s two choices in the penalty phase, either life without parole or the death penalty. “I believe in God, and I believe what the Bible says, ‘An eye for an eye.’”

He said it would have been a difficult decision for him to make, knowing Collings as well as he does, just as no doubt difficult for each of the jurors who made the decision. He said he can hate only what Collings did, and not the defendant himself, whom Clark has known most of his life.

“But I can’t look at my children without thinking of Rowan,” Clark said.

Prosecutor Johnnie Cox told jurors during closing arguments that life is about choices. Sometimes those choices get made for us, he said. Sometimes circumstances are more in control of what happens to us than we are, he said.

Collings was in control of what he did the night of Nov. 2, 2007, the prosecutor said. He made a conscious decision to return to Stella and snatch Rowan Ford from her room “like a thief in the night,” he said.

The state asked the jury to consider three possible aggravating circumstances that would put the death penalty on the table for their consideration. Jurors unanimously decided the prosecutors had proved the involvement of torture or depravity of mind in the crime and that the girl was killed because of her potential as a witness against the defendant.

The proposed aggravating circumstance that the jury did not unanimously agree on concerned whether the murder was committed while in the act of rape.

Cox had argued that the defendant acknowledged there was torture involved in his strangling of the girl when he admitted to investigators that she did not die quickly. The prosecutor also reminded jurors that the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy thought the sexual assault that preceded her killing would have been especially painful to the prepubescent victim.

Cox urged the jury “not to reward (Collings) for avoiding an investigation by killing her.”

“Mercy is something given by the powerful to the weak and innocent,” Cox said.

Collings had all the power that night, he said. Rowan Ford was weak and innocent. Collings showed her no mercy that night, he said. Cox asked jurors to show Collings no mercy in their decision on the punishment he should receive.

The defense argued in the penalty phase that Collings had taken responsibility for his crime and exhibited remorse over the course of four confessions made to investigators the day her body was recovered.

Defense attorney Charles Moreland also called attention to the alleged involvement of the girl’s stepfather, David Spears, 29, who also confessed to participating in the rape and murder in contradiction to Collings’ claim that he acted alone.

“How do you reconcile these two (separate) confessions?” he asked during closing arguments. “They can’t both be true.”

He suggested there were just three possibilities. Investigators may have lied when they told Collings during his interrogation that Spears had confessed, hoping that he would inculpate Spears, he said. Or Spears may have been an innocent man who falsely confessed. Either of those possibilities would be mitigating with respect to Collings, because both would mean that he stuck to the truth despite being given the opportunity to shift some of the blame to someone else, Moreland said.

The third possibility is that investigators were telling the truth — Spears’ confession was genuine and Collings has been taking the blame for more than what he actually did, Moreland said. He suggested there was some evidence to support this third scenario.

The defense called a canine search specialist to testify Thursday that her dogs detected the scent of human remains on the driver’s seat and rear cargo area of a Chevrolet Suburban that Spears borrowed from his mother the night of the murder.

In his rebuttal, Cox attacked the suggestion as a calculated “distraction” on the part of the defense, even though Spears remains charged with capital murder just like Collings and is scheduled to be tried in Pulaski County later this year.

“David Spears is not on trial (here) and has nothing to do with this defendant’s punishment,” Cox said.

The defense called Wanda Draper, a human development specialist and professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, as a final witness in the penalty phase to testify that Collings suffered severe emotional neglect during his prenatal period and the first six months of his life.

Draper told jurors that the parental neglect led to confusion, separation anxiety and betrayal trauma throughout his childhood, and ultimately brought about disorganized attachment disorder. She described the disorder as developmental and not a mental illness. She attributed the disorder to a number of stressors at various stages in his life and said it left Collings stuck at an emotional age of about 14 or 15.

Cox told jurors in closing arguments that Collings’ life may not have been perfect, but “he didn’t have it any worse than a lot of other people.”

“We are not trying a 14- or 15-year-old boy,” Cox said. “Don’t get pulled into that.”

 

Abuse

Chris Collings told Wanda Draper, a human development specialist who interviewed him in 2009 at the request of defense attorneys, that he tried to commit suicide when he was 7, was molested by a baby sitter when he was 13 and sodomized by one of his birth mother’s husbands at the age of 14.

Draper acknowledged on cross-examination by Prosecutor Elizabeth Bock that there was no record of any of those claims among the many records on Collings that she reviewed, and he made all those claims to her after having been charged with Rowan Ford’s rape and murder.

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