The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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January 8, 2014

State’s high court hears arguments in ’07 murder case

Barry County man appealing conviction, death sentence in slaying of 9-year-old girl

JOPLIN, Mo. — The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on Christopher Collings’ appeal of his first-degree murder conviction and death sentence in the 2007 slaying of 9-year-old Rowan Ford.

Collings, 38, was convicted of the crime and assessed the death penalty in March 2012 at a trial that was moved to Rolla on a change of venue from Barry County. Jurors chosen in Platte County were taken to Rolla to hear the case and were kept sequestered throughout the trial.

Rosemary Percival, an attorney with the Office of the State Public Defender, filed Collings’ appeal to the state’s high court, asking that his death sentence be vacated and that he be assessed life without parole.

Among other points, Percival argues that the trial court erred by not suppressing videotaped statements that Collings made to investigators in which he confessed to abducting, raping and killing the girl.

Percival maintains that the statements were not made voluntarily and that Collings did not understand his Miranda rights. The trial court further erred in not admitting at a suppression hearing a videotaped conversation that Collings had with Wheaton police Chief Clint Clark a few days after his arrest and purported confessions, which shows that he was pressured by Clark to forgo his constitutional rights and keep talking to investigators, the appeal brief argues.

The girl was taken from her home in Stella in the middle of the night in November 2007. Her body was recovered one week later at the bottom of a cave in nearby McDonald County. She had been raped and strangled with a ligature.

Both Collings and the girl’s stepfather, David W. Spears, 31, who had been drinking together the night in question, allegedly made confessions to the crime and were charged with rape and murder.

But their confessions conflicted, and Spears’ attorneys successfully argued at pretrial hearings that their client made a false confession under extreme pressure by investigators. After the conviction of Collings, prosecutors felt compelled by the circumstances of the two cases to allow Spears to plead guilty to a lesser offense of child endangerment and be assessed 11 years in prison.

Collings has always insisted that Spears had nothing to do with the crime. In one of his videotaped confessions, he claimed that the only act for which Spears bore guilt was leaving the girl home alone while they went out with a third drinking buddy, Nathan Mahurin, to get more alcohol and continue drinking at Collings’ home in Wheaton.

Collings confessed to “freaking out” when the girl recognized him as he was ushering her out of his mobile home after having raped her. She had been asleep when he took her from her home, and he had kept the lights off while sexually assaulting her inside his trailer. When he realized that she recognized him, he grabbed a piece of cord from the back of his truck and strangled her, he told investigators.

His appeal argues that the prosecution failed to prove that he coolly reflected before killing her, a required element for a first-degree murder conviction.

Percival’s brief further argues that the trial judge should not have allowed certain evidence gathered from Collings’ property into evidence at trial because of its speculative, misleading and prejudicial nature. For instance, a burnt piece of cord was admitted despite a lack of evidence that it had anything to do with the girl’s murder.

The appeal argues that Collings’ attorneys should have been granted a motion for a mistrial when prosecutors’ closing arguments sought to incite fear and anger in jurors about certain details of the case rather than having them come to a decision based on reason and objectivity.

The state’s response, filed by Attorney General Chris Koster and Richard Starnes, an assistant attorney general, argues that Collings was read his Miranda rights before every conversation with Clark in which he confessed to the crime, that the court properly considered in advance what evidence the judge excluded from trial, and that the defendant has failed to show that he suffered any manifest injustice.

The state further argues that Collings’ actions before, during and after the girl’s murder suggest that he planned to rape the girl and deliberated killing her.

Collings knew that Spears and Mahurin were returning to Stella by back roads and that he could beat Spears to his house and grab the girl, the state argues. Collings admitted strangling Ford for “a few minutes,” and a medical examiner testified that it would have taken about two to three minutes for the girl to die, allowing plenty of time for Collings to deliberate what he was doing, the state argues.

Afterward, Collings disposed of the body in a remote location and tried to destroy physical evidence at his home, burning a mattress and her clothes. Disposal of evidence “supports a reasonable inference of deliberation,” the state’s brief argues.

Ruling

THE SUPREME COURT will rule on the appeal at a later date.

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