WAYNESVILLE, Mo. —
Citing legal difficulties with his alleged confession, prosecutors dropped murder and rape charges against Rowan Ford’s stepfather Wednesday, allowing him to plead guilty to two lesser felonies and be assessed 11 years in prison.
David W. Spears, 29, pleaded guilty to child endangerment and hindering prosecution at a hearing in Pulaski County Circuit Court in Waynesville, where his case was moved in a change of venue from Barry County.
Circuit Judge Tracy Storie assessed Spears seven years in prison on the endangerment count and four years for hindering prosecution, and ordered that the terms run consecutively as requested by the state. Since Spears already has served almost five years in jail, he could be eligible for parole within a matter of a few years.
At the hearing, Spears admitted leaving his 9-year-old stepdaughter alone at their home in Stella the night she was abducted, raped and killed in November 2007. He also admitted leaving a message on the answering machine of his drinking buddy, Nathan Mahurin, asking Mahurin to lie to investigators about why he left her alone.
But the state was forced to drop counts of first-degree murder, forcible rape and statutory rape that Spears was facing because of conflicts between his alleged confession and statements provided to investigators by co-defendant Chris Collings, according to Johnny Cox, the Barry County prosecutor. Cox also cited new forensic evidence that became available in August.
Collings, 37, who was convicted in March and sentenced to die, repeatedly claimed to investigators five years ago that he acted alone. Cox said Collings’ various statements were “the most critical piece of evidence” the state had in convicting him of the crime.
On the other hand, Spears told investigators that he strangled the girl while Collings aided and encouraged him, and the prosecution would have had to argue the validity of that claim if Spears were taken to trial, Cox said.
“This would put the state in a position of arguing inconsistent theories of who actually strangled Rowan Ford,” Cox said. “The state would have to argue that both versions are true, even if they both cannot be true.”
He said state and federal courts prohibit inconsistent theories in the prosecution of co-defendants. Pursuing such a course could result not only in the overturning of any conviction of Spears that might be obtained, but also the conviction of Collings that already has been obtained, he said.
“Without physical evidence that is consistent with David Spears’ statement, the state cannot and will not pursue a course of action that would put the Christopher Collings conviction at risk,” Cox said.
Cox said he knows many people are convinced that Spears was involved. But he cannot be certain without any evidence to support his confession, he said.
“I cannot in good conscience ask a jury to convict a person of murder in the first degree and ask that he be put to death if I am uncertain about his involvement,” Cox said.