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Jury finds Collings guilty of first degree murder

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Christopher Collings
A jury has found Christopher Collings guilty of murder in the first degree. Five men and seven women, who have been sequestered in Rolla for the past week and a half, returned their verdict after deliberating for just over four hours.

The verdict came at the end of an eight-day trial and on the heels of closing statements offered by both the prosecution and defense late Tuesday afternoon. The case now enters the penalty phase when jurors will have to decide whether or not Collings deserves the death penalty for murdering 9-year-old Rowan Ford back in November of 2007.

Closing arguments

"Today is Christopher Collings' day of reckoning," said Elizabeth Bock in the prosecution's closing statement made late Tuesday afternoon.

Bock asked the jury to let their memories of the facts and evidence presented during the trial rule their decision.

"You'll remember on Nov. 2, 2007, that Rowan Ford, a 4-foot, four-inch tall little girl went missing," said Bock. "And you'll remember, on Nov. 3, 2007, when Colleen Spears got home to find her little girl missing never to be seen by her again."

Bock reminded the jurors of the day-by-day unfolding of events -- the various times throughout the week that Collings talked to various law enforcement officers but never admitted his involvement in Rowan's disappearance until officers eventually found Rowan's dead body lying in the bottom of Fox Cave.

"Make no mistake about it. The defendant benefitted from the fact that Rowan was in a hole from Nov. 2 to Nov. 9, 2007," said Bock. "It was a deliberate decision to hide her body. You saw the condition of her body, and because of that, there's no such thing as CSI Barry County."

Bock also told the jury that Collings' decision to kill Rowan was deliberate.

"He knew he was going to kill her," said Bock. "Christopher Collings was not impulsive. He raped that girl for four or five minutes. The next thing he did was look for a weapon to kill this little girl. He made a decision. She had to die, and he had to get rid of her."

In the defense's closing argument, attorney Jan Zembles did not argue that Collings was innocent. Instead she painted a different picture of Collings' state of mind on the night he raped and murdered Rowan Ford, and she asked jurors to consider returning a verdict of murder in the second degree.

Zembles began and ended her closing argument with a statement Collings made to Wheaton Police Chief Clint Clark on the day Collings confessed.

"He said to Clint, 'if you don't believe anything else of this whole story, you have to believe what I'm going to tell you. I fully intended to take her (Rowan) right back where I found her and leave her, but she saw me and I freaked out."

Zembles explained that the charge of first degree murder requires the prosecution to prove that Collings acted with "cool reflection."

"Cool reflection is not just a matter of time. It isn't just did someone, in this case Chris Collings, have time to stop," said Zembles. "Cool reflection is a state of mind. When people are paranoid, when people are terrified or when they're really, really angry, they're not cooly reflective.

"Christopher Collings told Clint Clark and other law enforcement officers, over and over again, 'I freaked out, I was paranoid,'" continued Zembles.

Zembles also said Collings didn't go looking for a murder weapon but said he just saw a cord laying in the truck right beside him.

"He didn't take the time to cut the rope off the reel," said Zembles. "He just grabbed it and left it on the ground."

Zembles talked about the graphic photos presented during the trial and urged the jury to put aside their feelings of "heartbreak," "grief" and "anger."

"Nothing you decide when you deliberate is going to bring Rowan Ford back. Nothing you decide is going to make her 10 years old," said Zembles, "and that's why you decide what the facts are and you don't make an emotional decision."

Before the jury was given the case to deliberate, the prosecution had one more chance to address the jury. Barry County Prosecutor Johnnie Cox used those final 20 minutes to talk about the "deep, dark" place that Collings went to on the night he decided to "play the boogie man" and steal a sleeping little girl out of her bedroom. Cox spoke with emotion about the "deep, dark" place where Collings went that led him to have sex with a 9-year-old girl and kill her.

"You have to ask yourselves, was this a situation where Mr. Collings was really going to return that little girl after raping her to her bedroom that night?" Cox said. "When this man scooped a little 9-year-old girl off the floor, she was never coming back. That little girl was dead when he put her in his truck."

Cox ended his statement by showing the jury a photo of Rowan Ford's dead body lying on the mortuary table.

"This is the defendant's handiwork," said Cox. "This is a result of his deliberation -- a dead 9-year-old girl on a slab.

"There is evidence of cool reflection, that he did take her life intentionally after cool deliberation," added Cox. "It wasn't a freakout. It was death after deliberation."

Other trial notes

Tuesday marked the eighth day of testimony in the trial. The morning began with the prosecution calling one witness to the stand. At the conclusion of that witness' testimony, the prosecution rested its case.

A brief recess was then called, at which time Phelps County Circuit Judge Mary Sheffield overruled a defense motion for acquital. She also questioned Collings directly about his intention to testify. When asked if he was not going to testify, Collins answered "Yes, maam."

When the jury was called back into the courtroom, the defense rested its case without introducing any additional evidence.

Collings, 37, of Wheaton, is also charged with first degree rape and statutory rape in the Rowan Ford case. These charges were "severed" or set aside so that the capital murder case could be handled first.

Collings has been held in the Barry County Jail since his arrest on Nov. 9, 2007.

While in court, Collings has been dressed in street clothes and is not wearing handcuffs or ankle shackles. Instead, he has been equipped with a "shock belt" that is controlled by a Phelps County deputy who is present in the courtroom whenever Collings is present.

Judge Sheffield told jurors that the second phase of the trial, called the penalty phase, will begin at 10 a.m. tomorrow (Wednesday).

Ford autopsy results presented in trial

By Lisa Schlichtman

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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OUTRAGE...that is what I feel! All Missourians should feel outraged that our tax payers money has gone for collings to eat 3 meals a day,make phone calls and have visitors. This viscious,ruthless,immoral,rabid animal raped and tortured an innocent little girl.collings and spears don't deserve death...that's too easy! They deserve to be tortured just the way they tortured Rowan, only 100 times more. I don't want either of them out in the communities to rape another little girl or woman. So I guess the death penalty will have to do. While they are waiting, they should pay we taxpayers back by working on a chain gang, cleaning up our communities until they couldn't walk.Citizens wake up. There are pedophiles, sex trafficking rapist and killers walking among us. They could be living next door to you. Stay alert. Know where your children are. Watch for suspicous activity. Go to the State Patrol website and to see if you have a pedophil living close by.The counties are full of them. Prisioners have no consequences, they have a gym,t.v., hot meals, play time. I don't even have a gym and I don't lay on my back all day watching t.v. and playing games! If we had an "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth justice system, maybe these horrific crime wouldn't be happening. Rowan's face haunts me, especially around holidays, when children are having fun. Her torture, runs through my mind constantly, it boils my blood and makes my skin crawl. Now it's time for colleen spears to go on the stand for neglect. How long did it take for her to report her daughter missing? Why didn't she look for her? Why did grandma give the car to spears in the wee hours? Did grandma check on Rowan? Who would leave a 9 yr old girl alone at night?? More people are guilty it seems to me.Seems like people shouldn't go on facebook, it might come back to bite them.

One down and two to go. I trust that justice will be in favor of little Rowan.We as citizens should call our senators, representatives and legislatures to improve these laws, make the trials shorter, the punishment harsher, support our law enforcement and pay them decent wages. We need to hire more prosecutors,judges and juvenile officers. Build more prisions, or use the death pentaly alot more.These horrific crimes have to stop.

Parents, Grandparents, kiss and hug your kids tonight, keep them close and protect them. May we all pray that all who tortured a child will be punished.

-- Posted by ecotraveler on Wed, Mar 21, 2012, at 3:48 AM

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