The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Crime & Courts

September 1, 2012

Defense hopes to use Collings’ confessions in Spears’ trial

David Spears told his interrogators five years ago that he and Chris Collings took Rowan Ford’s body to Fox Cave in Spears’ mother’s Suburban.

On the same day, Collings was telling investigators that he hauled the girl’s body to the cave in his pickup truck.

Alone.

Collings, 37, made repeated confessions to the abduction, rape and slaying of the 9-year-old girl in November 2007. Those statements figured prominently in the testimony and evidence presented at trial earlier this year when he was convicted of the crime and sentenced to die.

In each of his confessions, Collings said that he, and he alone, sexually assaulted and strangled the girl at his home near Wheaton. In the videotaped interview in which Collings was first told that Spears had confessed to involvement as well, Collings sneered, shook his head in seeming disbelief, and insisted: “I was there by myself.”

Attorneys for the girl’s stepfather, Spears, 29, consequently hope to introduce Collings’ confessions as evidence at their client’s capital-murder trial this fall. Defense briefs filed Aug. 14 and Aug. 23 in Pulaski County Circuit Court, where Spears’ case was moved on a change of venue from Barry County, argue that Collings’ confessions should be admitted as evidence because they exonerate Spears.

Spears is charged with first-degree murder, forcible rape and statutory rape.

INVOKING THE FIFTH

The documents state that the defense intends to call Collings as a witness. But one brief also states that the condemned man’s attorneys have informed the defense that, just as Spears did at Collings’ trial, Collings intends to invoke his right under the Fifth Amendment to remain silent.

That raises a legal question whether his various confessions — videotaped or otherwise — should be allowed in as evidence because of their hearsay nature.

Spears’ attorneys, Cynthia Dryden and Sharon Turlington, argue that the case meets a three-pronged test for admissibility of third-party confessions established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Chambers v. Mississippi: that the person who made the declarations is not available as a witness; that, if true, the statements would exonerate Spears; and that the statements carry certain indicators of reliability.

Some indicators of reliability that the Supreme Court has laid out for trial courts are: if the statements are against the interest of the person who uttered them, if they are corroborated by other evidence, if they are made to a close acquaintance, if they are spontaneous and the number of times statements are independently made.

‘CONFABULATION’

Spears’ attorneys argue that Collings’ confessions obviously run counter to self-interest since the prosecution relied upon them to convict him and to sway a jury to recommend the death penalty.

The stepfather allegedly told investigators that after a night of drinking and smoking pot with Collings and Nathan Mahurin, Spears and Mahurin left Collings’ place and took a leisurely drive on some back roads to Spears’ home in Stella. Spears said that when he got back and saw his stepdaughter was gone, he realized that Collings had taken a more direct route to his house and abducted her.

Spears borrowed his mother’s van and drove to Collings’ home, where he caught his friend in the act of sexually assaulting her but decided to join in the rape rather than intervene on her behalf, according to his own alleged confession. In further contradiction to Collings’ statements, Spears told investigators that he was the one who strangled his stepdaughter with a piece of cord, and that they then disposed of her body together.

The defense has asserted in pre-trial hearings and motions that this was a confabulation, or false confession, obtained by investigators after a week of accusatory interrogations. An expert witness for the defense testified at a suppression hearing in 2010 that under such pressure, Spears gradually came to internalize the belief that he must have committed the crime even though he had no memory of it.

CORROBORATING EVIDENCE

Collings told investigators that the only thing Spears was guilty of was leaving the girl alone. They told him Spears knew some details about the rape and killing that he could not have known any other way unless Collings told him. Collings denied that he told Spears anything, but insisted Spears had nothing to do with the crime.

“When the DNA comes in, it’s going to tell the truth,” Collings said.

In a brief filed Aug. 23, Spears’ attorneys argue that the physical evidence in the case corroborates Collings’ confessions and not their client’s: “Two pubic hairs consistent with Chris Collings are found on Rowan’s body, near her vagina. Although Rowan was raped, forensic testing failed to find any sperm, although seminal fluid was found. Records show that Chris Collings has had a vasectomy; therefore he would not produce sperm, explaining the lack of sperm on Rowan’s body.”

Spears was excluded as a possible source of the pubic hairs, the brief argues. But the mitochondrial DNA from those hairs matches up with Collings’ mitochondrial DNA profile, a match found in less than 1.52 percent of the Caucasian population, the brief states.

In contrast, “forensic testing failed to find anything to link David Spears to Rowan Ford’s body,” the brief points out.

The defense claims there is additional evidence backing up Collings’ account that he took the body to the cave in his truck. Hairs containing DNA “consistent with Rowan Ford” were found in the bed of the truck where Collings said he placed the body. Prosecutors entered those hairs as evidence at Collings’ trial.

Also, there was a cigarette butt recovered from the bed of the truck that bore “a mixture of DNA on it consistent with Chris Collings and Rowan Ford,” the defense argues.

‘TO THE DAY I DIE’

Circuit Judge Tracy Storie has given the prosecution and defense time to file additional briefs on the issue. The judge ultimately must decide if any of Collings’ statements are to be allowed in and at what point of the trial, during the guilt-or-innocence phase, the penalty phase or both.

Among the statements of Collings that Spears’ attorneys would like to use are two he made to family members at the Barry County Jail a few days after his arrest.

He told them that he had been “stupid” and opened his mouth and “said too much” and that he was “going to fry for this.” When they suggested that he might be covering for someone else, he again denied it, the defense briefs state.

When Spears is specifically mentioned during a conversation with Collings’ parents, Collings reportedly said: “Hopefully, I can have this separated from David’s case ... because, I, he’s a f------ idiot, and I want no part of it ... I’ll never to the day I die understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. But I’ll fill you in on that when it’s not going to be something that won’t hinder my case.”

 

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