Emotional testimony offered in trial's second phase
The last time Tammy Marshall saw Rowan Ford alive, the 9-year-old went skipping by her on the playground of Triway Elementary School with her long hair tied back in a pretty ponytail.
"She looked so happy," said Marshall, who was one of Rowan's teachers and one of six witnesses the prosecution called to the stand on Wednesday during the first day of the penalty phase of Christopher Collings' murder trial.
The testimony began the morning after jurors found Collings guilty of murder in the first degree, a crime that is punishable by death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. In the trial's second phase, jurors will decide Collings' punishment.
After spending eight days listening to details about Rowan Ford's death, the jurors heard from witnesses who described what the young girl was like in life.
"Rowan was a charismatic little girl," said Todd Holt, Rowan's fourth grade teacher. "She's the kind of kid every school teacher could want. Her attitude was perfect. I never remember Rowan being in a bad mood."
Rowan also loved to read, and her favorite color was purple.
"Rowan could be silly and goofy, but she always knew when it was time to be serious, to buckle down and get to work," continued Holt. "She didn't know how to quit."
Marshall and Holt both testified about how difficult it was for Rowan's classmates after she was reported missing and then found dead in a cave a week later. The teachers said they tried to bring a "sense of normalcy" to the classroom while still allowing the students to express their thoughts about their missing friend.
"The kids were writing poems and making cards for Rowan when she came home," said Marshall.
And when Rowan didn't come home, the students and teachers at Triway Elementary held a special balloon release in Rowan's honor on the morning of her funeral.
"We planted a pink dogwood in remembrance of her and did a balloon release," said Marshall. "The children wrote notes to Rowan and tied them to the purple balloons."
According to her teachers, school was a sanctuary for Rowan. The youngster arrived early every morning and stayed late in the afternoon for math tutoring.
"Rowan was there at 7:20 or 7:30 every morning," said Holt. "She'd be waiting for us."
The teachers' testimony also revealed that Rowan's home life was less than perfect. She often arrived at school with her hair matted and ratty, and Holt told the court during cross examination that he had made several reports about Rowan to the Division of Family Services but nothing was ever done.
"I didn't see any signs of abuse, but the neglect was obvious," said Holt.
Rowan's death seemed to hit Holt particularly hard. The fourth grade teacher broke down in sobs as he explained how he "went to a very dark place for a very long time" after Rowan died.
"I got real depressed. I was angry at myself. I was angry at God," said Holt. "I blamed myself for what had happened. It tore me apart."
Although it's been four and a half years since Rowan's murder, Holt said he still thinks about the little girl every day.
"I can't walk into my classroom and not tell you exactly where Rowan was sitting the day she went missing," said Holt.
The jurors also heard testimony from April Counts, the mother of Rowan's best friend, Tyler. The Counts lived down and street and around the corner from the Spearses in Stella, and Rowan was a frequent visitor at the Counts' home. Counts said Rowan would come to the house four or five times a week and also attended church with the Counts at Stella Baptist Church.
When asked to describe her son's friendship with Rowan, Counts said the two complemented each other. Rowan was shy, and Tyler was more boisterous.
"Rowan kept him out of trouble I think . . . she kept him in line," said Counts.
Counts also told the jury how Rowan learned to swim at their family's pool the summer before she was murdered, and how Rowan and Tyler loved to ride their bikes around the neighborhood and play "make believe."
"They liked to play knights and princesses," said Counts.
The last time Counts saw Rowan alive was at church the Sunday before she was reported missing. Rowan and Tyler were sitting together in the pew in front of Counts and her husband.
Counts explained that they always gave Tyler a dollar to put in the collection plate, and on that particular Sunday, they'd decided to start giving Rowan a dollar too, so she wouldn't feel left out.
"When my husband handed her that dollar, she turned around and just beamed with joy," said Counts. "She was so very happy."
Colleen Munson, Rowan's mother, was the first to testify on Wednesday. She spoke of the devastating effect Rowan's murder had on her and her entire family. She said she hasn't been able to work since 2009 and has been admitted into a psychiatric hospital several different times over the past four and a half years because she's had thoughts of suicide.
When asked by Barry County Prosecutor Johnnie Cox how often she thinks of Rowan, Munson answered, "All the time.
"It's not much of a life," Munson added. "I cry a lot."
The final witness to testify before the prosecution rested its case at around 2:40 p.m. was Rowan's older sister, Ariane Parsons, who lived with Rowan in Stella up until the end of September 2007.
Parsons, who is 22 now, was nine and a half years older than her little sister, and Parsons said she considered herself to be Rowan's protector. Parsons also said she played a motherly role, making sure Rowan got to school, ate dinner in the evening and had clean clothes to wear the next day.
Cox asked Parsons to describe her sister.
"Rowan was a little bundle of love," said Parsons. "She is an actual angel. She definitely cared about everybody . . . and she had the most beautiful brown eyes."
Parsons also testified about inappropriate overtures made by Collings when he lived in the Spears' home for three months and when he visited.
"He rubbed against me, he rubbed my butt and he touched my breasts," said Parsons. "It happened a lot, and I told him not to."
Parsons said the incidents began when she was 15 and continued until she moved out of the house in Stella in September of 2007.
On cross examination, Parsons said she told her mom and her stepfather, David Spears, about the inappropriate encounters with Collings each time they happened.
"They did nothing, because they thought he (Collings) was just joking around," said Parsons.
Since Rowan's murder, Parsons said she has lived with guilt for moving away and leaving her sister alone. As a result, Parsons said she has thought about suicide several different times.
"I felt responsible because I left her there and I was supposed to be protecting her," said Parsons.
Near the end of Parson's testimony, Cox introduced a small purple diary into evidence that Parsons identified as a dairy of hers she had left at the house in Stella. Cox asked Parsons if she recognized the handwriting on the last page of the diary, and Parsons said the writing belonged to Rowan.
Cox then asked Parsons to read the diary entry written by Rowan and dated Sept. 29, 2007.
"Dear Diary, this is my sister's diary. She moved. What should I do? I'll talk to you in the morning."
A trial in two phases
In a death penalty case, the trial is divided into two phases. The jury must first determine a defendant's guilt or innocence. Once a verdict has been reached, the trial enters a second penalty phase where the jury assesses punishment.
On Wednesday, the penalty phase in the Christopher Collings' capital murder trial began with Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Bock making a statement for the prosecution and attorney Charles Moreland making a statement for the defense.
Bock and Barry County Prosecutor Johnnie Cox are asking the jury to sentence Collings to the death penalty.
During Moreland's opening statement, the defense laid out its argument for a lesser sentence. They told the jurors Collings had a tough upbringing and had developed a "severe attachment disorder" from a very young age that led to severe behaviorial and emotional problems throughout his life.
Moreland also spoke about how Collings had taken full responsibility for the death of Rowan Ford, even after officers were telling him that David Spears had confessed to the very same crime.
The defense will begin presenting its case on Thursday morning. Moreland said he expects testimony to continue into Friday.
The jurors will remain sequestered in Rolla until they reach a decision on Collings' punishment. Under Missouri state law, the punishment for first degree murder is either death or life in prison without the possibility of probation or parole.