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 a little 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. Today (Wednesday) the case will enter the penalty phase when jurors will have to decide whether or not Collings deserves the death penalty for raping and murdering 9-year-old Rowan Ford.
"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 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.
"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 closed 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 refection, that he did take her life intentionally after cool deliberation," added Cox. "It wasn't a freakout. It was death after deliberation."
At the close of Cox's statement, Phelps County Circuit Judge Mary Sheffield asked the bailiff to take the four alternate jurors back to where they have been sequestered all week. Then the remaining jury, composed of five men and seven women, left the courtroom to begin their deliberations at 5:05 p.m.
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 Judge 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 Barry County Jail since his arrest on Nov. 9, 2007.