By Jeff Lehr
Globe Staff Writer
An expert on false confessions is expected to testify today concerning alleged admissions that David W. Spears made during the investigation of the 2007 rape and murder of 9-year-old Rowan Ford.
Richard Leo, a law professor from the University of San Francisco, is scheduled to testify on behalf of the defense at a hearing in Pulaski County. Defense attorneys for Spears, 27, Ford’s stepfather, are seeking to get excluded from trial a taped confession their client allegedly made to Newton County sheriff’s deputies.
Today’s hearing in Waynesville could be the last of a series of hearings on the motion to suppress that began in April. Circuit Judge Tracy Storie could rule at the end of the hearing whether the confession will be admissible at Spears’ trial, scheduled for August 2011.
Authorities say Rowan was taken from her home in Stella in Newton County in the early morning hours of Nov. 3, 2007. Her body was discovered several days later in a sinkhole in McDonald County. She had been raped and strangled.
Investigators say Spears admitted that he and his friend, Christopher L. Collings, 34, killed Rowan after taking turns sexually assaulting her at Collings’ home near Wheaton in Barry County.
Both men are charged with first-degree murder, forcible rape and statutory rape. They are facing the death penalty and will be tried separately. Spears’ case was moved to Pulaski County and Collings’ case to Phelps County on changes of venue based on defense claims of excessive publicity. Collings is scheduled for trial in January in Rolla.
A psychologist testified at hearings in April and May that Spears was under tremendous pressure from investigators in the aftermath of his stepdaughter’s disappearance from their home. Antoinette Cavanaugh told the court that her evaluation of Spears led her to believe he is highly susceptible to being coerced and led into situations in which he lets others fill in the blanks in his accounts of what happened.
The psychologist said Spears idolized Mark Bridges, the Newton County coroner and former sheriff, who played a role in the investigation, accompanying Spears on a drive around the countryside while the girl was still missing. During that drive, Spears reportedly pointed out a number of places where someone might dispose of a body and even allegedly pointed out to Bridges the sinkhole where Rowan eventually was found.
The defense expert told the court that she believes Spears’ eagerness to please Bridges may have rendered him all the more susceptible to a coerced confession.
Defense attorneys also have questioned whether their client was properly advised of his Miranda rights and whether he was capable of understanding those rights because of his abuse of alcohol.
Investigators said in 2007 that David Spears and Christopher Collings each confessed to raping and killing Rowan Ford. But authorities have never explained how it is that both Spears and Collings reportedly claimed in their confessions to have personally placed a cord around Rowan’s neck and strangled her.