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.
The defense has asserted in pretrial hearings and motions that Spears provided a false confession, or confabulation, to investigators after several accusatory interrogations in the week after the girl’s disappearance. An expert witness testified at a hearing in 2010 that under such pressure, Spears gradually came to internalize a belief that he must have committed the crime even though he had no memory of it.
Defense attorney Sharon Turlington said after the hearing that “everything about this case has been consistent with a false confession.”
“What happened here today is David took responsibility for what he did do,” Turlington said. “He was never involved in the abduction, rape or murder of Rowan.”
She said the physical evidence in the case is inconsistent with the alleged confession Spears provided investigators but does corroborate Collings’ version of the crime.
Spears allegedly told investigators that after a night of drinking and smoking marijuana with Collings and Mahurin, he and Mahurin left Collings’ home in Wheaton and took a leisurely drive along some back roads to his home in Stella. The stepfather said that when he got back, he saw that his stepdaughter was gone and realized that Collings had taken a more direct route and abducted her.
He told investigators that he borrowed his mother’s van and drove to Collings’ home, where he caught his friend in the act of sexually assaulting the girl. Rather than intervening, he joined in the sexual assault of the girl, he allegedly told investigators.
In direct contradiction to Collings’ account, Spears allegedly said he strangled the girl with a piece of cord and that they then disposed of her body together, hauling it to a cave in McDonald County inside his mother’s Suburban. Collings told investigators that he took the girl’s body to the cave in the back of his pickup truck.
Hairs containing DNA consistent with Rowan’s DNA profile were found in the back of Collings’ truck, and prosecutors entered those hairs as evidence at Collings’ trial. And, two hairs found on her body during an autopsy were determined to be a match with Collings’ mitochondrial DNA profile, a match found in less than 1.52 percent of the Caucasian population. Tests excluded Spears as a possible source of the hairs.
Cox said three different laboratories — the FBI and Missouri State Highway Patrol crime labs and an independent lab consulted by the defense — analyzed a rape kit that was collected at the autopsy, and two of those labs tested items from the back of Collings’ truck. None of the labs found any evidence to implicate Spears, he said.
The defense had to wait until after Collings’ trial to have items analyzed at their independent lab. Cox acknowledged that the testing done there came up with new evidence supporting Collings’ account of the crime and not what Spears told investigators.
In particular, a hair and a cigarette butt found in the back of Collings’ truck that had not been tested by the FBI or the state patrol were analyzed. The hair matched Collings’ mitochondrial DNA, and DNA Short Tandem Repeat testing of the cigarette butt, which showed a presumptive positive for blood, found a mixture of DNA from Collings and the girl. The match to Collings’ profile was one in 170 billion within a Caucasian population.
During the sentencing phase of Collings’ trial, in an effort to suggest that Collings may not have been the only one involved in the crime, his attorneys called a woman handler of a cadaver dog to testify that her dog alerted on Spears’ mother’s Suburban, possibly indicating that a dead body had been in the vehicle.
Cynthia Dryden, Spears’ other attorney, said after the hearing that investigators searched the Suburban “with every method possible,” from vacuuming for trace evidence to black light examination, and “didn’t find anything.” The state had argued at Collings’ trial that what the dog may have been alerting on was cells shed from the necrotic tissue of a leg wound his father suffered.
Colleen Spears, the girl’s mother, who attended the plea hearing, had little comment to make. She acknowledged that she was informed of the pending plea deal about 10 days ago. She said she had no real choice but to accept the outcome.
“I couldn’t do anything else,” she said.
THE DEFENSE released a statement after the plea hearing Wednesday that said David Spears is “deeply sorry that his actions, leaving Rowan Ford alone that night, contributed to the tragic death of his stepdaughter,” and that the pain it has caused her family, his own family and the community “will carry with him forever.”