Penalty phase enters second day

Friday, March 23, 2012

The defense began its fight to keep convicted murderer Christopher Collings off death row on Thursday by presenting testimony from family members who talked about Collings' childhood and from a doctor who diagnosed Collings with "disoriented disassociative disorder."

The testimony marked the second day of the trial's penalty phase. After the defense rests its case and closing arguments are made, the jury will deliberate Collings' punishment. The prosecution is seeking the death penalty.

In support of the defense's appeal for life in prison without parole for Collings, defense attorney Charles Moreland called Collings' biological father, Dale Pickett, to the stand.

Pickett spoke about his volatile life with Collings' biological mother, Barbara Pickett -- a rough life that involved hard drinking, infidelity and crime.

"She liked her booze same I as did," said Pickett. "She couldn't stand me drunk, and I couldn't stand her sober, so I stayed drunk."

When asked who cared for Collings after he was born to Dale and Barbara in 1975, Pickett said Barbara's son, Greg Horton, was the one who took over as caregiver at the age of 12.

When Collings was six months old, Pickett was arrested for shooting a man. He said he went after Barbara's ex-husband but ended up shooting the wrong man. Pickett was convicted of assault with intent to kill and was sentenced to 21 years in prison. Right around that same time, Barbara was arrested on robbery charges in Missouri.

With both parents facing prison time, Family Services removed Collings and his stepbrothers and stepsisters from the Pickett home. The siblings were separated and placed in foster homes in southwest Missouri. Collings went to live with Barbara and Clarence (Poncho) Collings in Wheaton.

After Pickett was released from prison, he met with his son once when Collings was around 7 years old and then didn't see him until Collings turned 18 and came to live with Pickett in Arkansas.

When Collings was reunited with his dad as a young adult, Pickett had remarried and had a 9-year-old stepdaughter. Pickett testified that Collings had inappropriate sexual contact with his stepdaughter when she was 11 and when she was 14 or 15.

At the end of Pickett's testimony, Moreland asked Pickett if he had anything to say to the jury before they decided his son's sentence.

"I know my son made a serious mistake," said Pickett. "Mistakes are something everybody makes. No matter what happens, I love my son. I know a man can change, everybody can change, I have changed."

Collings' stepbrother who took care of him as an infant also testified on Thursday. Greg Horton described the severe beatings he received from his mother, Barbara, and Pickett's heavy drinking. He also recalled the night the police came to the family's home in Arkansas and took all the siblings to a shelter and then placed them separately into foster care.

On cross examination, Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Bock asked Horton whether he was the one, not his brother, who bore the brunt of his mother's abuse, and Horton answered "yes." Bock then asked Horton if he had ever been in prison, ever murdered anyone or ever raped anyone. Horton's answer to each question was "no."

Both Randy Collings and Robin Brattin, Collings' adopted brother and sister, also testified for the defense. Randy Collings was 14 when Christopher Collings joined the household as a foster child and Robin was 15. Christopher Collings was not adopted by Barbara and Poncho Collings until he was about 7 or 8 years old.

Brattin offered emotional testimony as she described Christopher's growing up years and the difficulty her adopted brother had getting along with others. She said Christopher was very impulsive with a temper that he didn't seem to know how to control.

"I believe my parents did all they could to help him get through those difficulties," said Brattin, who cried throughout most of her testimony. "He grew up in the same home as I did. My parents were far from being perfect, but they did the best they could."

Brattin also spoke about how the events of November 2007 and Collings' actions put a huge strain on her family. She said her mother, Betty, died two weeks before Rowan Ford was murdered, and her dad, Poncho, died five months after.

"I do believe it was from the stress of the things that happened," said Brattin. "I feel so selfish, because this is nothing compared to what Rowan's family is going through."

The defense also presented testimony that seemed aimed at redirecting the jury's attention to David Spears' involvement in Rowan Ford's rape and murder.

Myrna Spears, David Spears' mother, told the jury her son called her and asked her to bring her Suburban over to his house in Stella at around midnight on Nov. 2, 2007. Myrna said she drove to David's home and then her son left in the Suburban. Myrna said she stayed at the house until David returned at 7 a.m. During that time, Myrna said she never checked on Rowan.

Alicia Brown, who was a volunteer member of the Newton County Search and Rescue team that assisted in the search for Rowan, also testified. Brown said her two search and rescue dogs both alerted twice to the scent of human remains during a search of Myrna Spears' Suburban. She said her dogs alerted on the driver's side seat and in the rear cargo area of the vehicle.

On cross examination, Brown said her dogs did not search Collings' pickup.

The presence of family in the courtroom elicited the first signs of emotion from Collings who had remained stone faced since his trial began on March 12. Pickett, his wife, Julie, and Horton sat behind Collings in the courtroom, and Collings frequently turned his chair to make eye contact with them.

The last witness of the day was Dr. Wanda Draper, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, who also serves as a consultant in the field of human development.

Dr. Draper said she was hired by the Missouri Public Defenders Office to develop a "life path" for Collings. The 18-page document, which was passed out to jurors, includes events and situations that occurred in Collings' life from birth to the present that were relevant to his development.

"Attachment issues were beginning (at birth) because the mother was very uninvolved with the baby," said Dr. Draper.

Stressors in Collings' life were also identified in Dr. Draper's "life plan." Some of these stressors included: separation from his parents and siblings; three foster placements in the first seven months of his life; febrile seizures and hospitalizations as a child; the use of drugs and alcohol by his biological parents; and removal from his parents' home for parental neglect and non-support.

Dr. Draper, who is the defense's final witness, will continue her testimony on Friday morning.

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