Jury finds Collings guilty of first degree murder

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 ~ Updated 10:22 PM
Christopher Collings

By Lisa Schlichtman

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).

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