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Autopsy results presented in murder trial

Monday, March 19, 2012 ~ Updated 10:18 PM

A narrow "scrape" that circled the neck of 9-year-old Rowan Ford was all the physical evidence the forensic pathologist needed to determine "ligature strangulation" as the 9-year-old's cause of death.

Jurors spent most of the morning of the seventh day of Christopher Collings' capital murder trial on Monday listening to Dr. Keith Norton provide the details of the physical injuries Rowan suffered before she died.

But before Norton took the stand, Phelps County Circuit Judge Mary Sheffield heard arguments from both sets of attorneys concerning the autopsy photos that were scheduled to be presented as evidence along with Norton's testimony.

Defense attorneys Jan Zembles and Charles Moreland objected to the photos, arguing that the images were "gruesome," "duplicative" and "unduly prejudicial."

Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Bock strongly countered the defense's objection.

"The pictures are nasty and gruesome, because that's the nature of the crime," said Bock, who is prosecuting the case alongside Barry County Prosecutor Johnnie Cox.

Bock also noted that the defense even objected to a photo because it showed Rowan's toenails painted with red polish.

"I guess the defendant should have removed the nail polish before he raped and murdered her," said Bock.

Judge Sheffield overruled the defense's objection and allowed the prosecution to admit a series of autopsy photos that Norton identified and described during his testimony. The photos were not allowed to be displayed on the big screen in the courtroom. Instead, the photos were passed among the jury.

In describing Rowan, Norton said the young girl was 4'4" and slight of build, referring to her as having an "ectomorphic" skeleton. He also said Rowan's hair was pulled back into a ponytail and was 18 inches in length.

In addition to marks around her neck, Rowan had damage inflicted to her mouth and teeth, Norton said. Her four upper front teeth had been pushed up and out, causing injury and bleeding to the gums. Her upper jaw bone was also broken.

When asked if these injuries occurred before or after her death, Norton said it could have been either.

"They could have been caused pre-death or during the fall into the cave," said Norton.

The pathologist also described a "tearing of the flesh" in the girl's vaginal area. Norton said the laceration was more than three-fourths of an inch long and was an injury "consistent with blunt force injury to the tissue" caused by something cylindrical "like an adult male penis."

The injury caused bleeding from the vagina that spread to the outer sides of both legs and into the buttocks area. According to Norton, the injury was inflicted before Rowan's death and would have been "very painful."

When questioned more about Rowan's cause of death, Norton explained that ligature strangulation cuts off the blood flow to the victim's brain. He estimated that Rowan would have been unconscious within 10 seconds of a rope being tightened around her neck.

"She would have stopped breathing in two or three minutes," said Norton. "She would have been brain dead after 12 minutes."

Norton also described for the jury the greenish discoloration found on Rowan's neck, face and legs, which he said was caused by decomposition.

According to Collings' confession, Rowan was killed sometime after midnight on Nov. 3, 2007, and her body was not discovered until almost a week later on Nov. 9, 2007, in Fox Cave near Powell.

On cross examination, Zembles asked Norton if he noted any old scars or old injuries on Rowan's body during the autopsy. In particular, Zembles asked if Norton noticed a scar on Rowan's right lower leg and if that scar looked like a cigarette burn. Norton answered "yes."

More objections

In the afternoon, the prosecution had planned to put two FBI forensic examiners on the stand who conducted DNA analysis on evidence collected during the Rowan Ford murder investigation. The two women, Constance Fisher and Tina Delgado, both work at the FBI laboratories in Quantico, Va.

Zembles asked to voir dire the witnesses prior to their testimony, and Judge Sheffield allowed the request. Voir dire is the process by which expert witnesses are questioned about their qualifications and education before being allowed to present expert testimony.

After separate and lengthy questioning of both women without the jury present, Zembles entered an objection based on the fact that neither woman performed the entirety of the testing on their DNA samples that they would be testifying about. Zembles said this type of testimony would violate Collings' 6th Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him.

In response, Cox and Bock opted to withdraw Delgado and Fisher as witnesses. Bock said the prosecution's action was made in light of a decision pending in the U.S. Supreme Court that could impact DNA evidence.

"Out of an abundance of caution, we aren't going to offer the expert witness testimony of either woman," said Bock. "With a confession, we don't want to risk it."

Additional testimony

The prosecution's case continued with testimony from Nick Gerhardt, a trace evidence criminologist with the Missouri State Highway Patrol Crime Lab, and Stacy Bollinger, a DNA criminalist with the state crime lab.

Gerhardt analyzed evidence from a variety of items seized at the Collings' property, including items taken from the suspect's white pickup truck.

In particular, Gerhardt testified about hairs he found of "potential evidentiary value," including one longer hair discovered in the bed of Collings' truck. He said the hair was light to medium brown in color and measured over seven inches in length. The hair also had a root, which could be analyzed for DNA, Gerhardt said.

Bollinger attempted to explain to the jury the complicated process of extracting DNA evidence. She told the jury that she analyzed the vaginal and rectal swabs taken as part of the sexual assault kit performed on Rowan.

"There was an insufficient amount of DNA to perform further testing," said Bollinger.

She added that there were "indications" that sperm and semen were present on the swabs, but again, there was insufficient DNA present in the samples.

When asked by Cox what affect a vasectomy could have on DNA evidence, Bollinger answered that performing a vasectomy removes sperm cells from ejaculate and it is sperm cells that contain DNA.

In his taped confession, which was shown to jurors on Friday, Collings told Barry County detective Rob Evenson that he had a vasectomy.

The long piece of hair that Gerhardt testified to finding in the bed of Collings' pickup was also tested for DNA by Bollinger. She said she was able to get a partial DNA profile from the root of the hair, and it contained "female gender characteristics" and was "consistent" with a known sample of Rowan's.

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