Jury recommends death for Collings
With unwavering attention, the jury listened closely to every word the attorneys offered in their closing statements, which marked the end of the penalty phase in Christopher Collings' capital murder trial.
After sitting through 11 days of testimony and taking a little over four hours to find Collings guilty of first degree murder last Tuesday night, the jury spent 51 minutes deciding that Collings deserved the death penalty for the rape and murder of 9-year-old Rowan Ford back in November 2007.
In announcing the verdict at 6:20 p.m. on Friday, Phelps County Circuit Judge Mary Sheffield asked Collings to rise, and as she read the punishment of death, the 37-year-old defendant from Wheaton showed no outward sign of emotion.
Collings' biological father, his stepmother and his stepbrother attended the trial on Thursday, but on the final day when the jury's decision was read, Collings was alone in the courtroom with no family present.
Rowan's mother, Colleen Munson, and Rowan's older sister, Ariane Parsons, were sitting in the second row of the courtroom for the jury's verdict, and as the death sentence was announced, the mother and daughter clutched each other's hands and quietly wept.
In deciding to recommend the death penalty, the jury of five men and seven women from Platte County found Collings' crime involved two of the three aggravating factors listed in their jury instructions.
Jurors found that the murder of Rowan Ford was "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhumane in that it involved torture or depravity of mind," and that Rowan Ford was murdered as a result of her status as a potential witness in the pending investigation of her rape.
Barry County Prosecutor Johnnie Cox spoke to the jury about choices during his closing statement.
"On Nov. 2 and into Nov. 3, the defendant was in control. He made the decisions that night," said Cox. "The defendant chose to go over to Rowan's house and get her out of her room while she slept. He took her out of the room like a thief in the night. He really did steal her that night. He stole her innocence, he stole her dignity, he stole her privacy, he stole her body, and ultimately, he stole her life."
Cox also reminded the jury that Collings was not a 14- or 15-year-old teenager but a grown man who made an adult decision to take Rowan's life to keep himself out of trouble after she recognized him as her rapist.
"He made the decision that his own destiny was more important than whatever life she had left," said Cox. "He threw her away like a piece of trash. Then he made a decision to get rid of all the evidence."
Attorney Charles Moreland, who made the defense's closing argument, told the jurors that the aggravating factors of Rowan Ford's murder proposed by the prosecution were not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Mr. Cox told you the rape involved torture, but Mr. Collings is not being tried for rape," said Moreland, refering to the fact that Collings' trial was limited in scope to murder. "As Dr. Norton (the pathologist who performed the autopsy) told you, Rowan Ford would have been unconscious in 10 seconds (after Collings began strangling her)."
Moreland also suggested that Collings' sentence should be mitigated to life in prison, because he had confessed to the crime and he confessed to acting alone.
"Mr. Collings took the full blame and accepted responsibility for it all," said Moreland.
In Cox's statement, the prosecutor reminded the jury that Collings' statement came a week after he had raped and murdered Rowan Ford, and his confession was preceded by lies Collings told to law enforcement officials searching for Rowan.
Moreland also said Collings' statement and David Spears' statement couldn't both be true, and he offered several explanations for the two confessions.
"The third possible explanation is that David Spears was involved, and even though Christopher Collings took full responsibility, maybe he's taking responsibility for more than what he did . . . that it was David Spears who disposed of that body," Moreland said.
Moreland ended his statement by talking about his client's immaturity.
"Mr. Collings has made a lot of bad decisions," said Moreland. "He continues to make bad decisions. Today, he decided he wasn't going to wear a tie. He's an immature guy. He's developmentally stunted."
Moreland also told the jury that "the seeds of redemption" were in Collings.
"The act of confession is a moral act, and it's doing what is right regardless of the consequences," said Moreland. "I submit Christopher Collings to you and ask you to spare his life."
In response, Cox talked to the jury about the act of mercy.
"Mercy is something the powerful give to the weak and innocent," said Cox. "Mr. Collings had all the power that night (the night Rowan was killed), and Rowan Ford was the weak and innocent and he gave her no mercy. He deserves no mercy."
Weighing the facts
In making their decision, the jurors weighed the facts of the case plus the testimony of witnesses who took the stand during the penalty phase.
The prosecution offered the testimony of six different witnesses who offered jurors a glimpse into the life of an innocent 9-year-old girl who loved school, who enjoyed riding bikes around town with her best friend and who thrived despite the limitations posed by growing up in a poor household.
Victim impact testimony was also part of the prosecution's case as Munson and Parsons talked about their bouts with suicidal thoughts following Rowan's murder and how Rowan's death destroyed their family. Rowan's teachers also provided insight into how the fourth grader's murder rocked the school and its students and sent a shock wave through the small community of Stella.
The defense focused its penalty phase testimony on Collings' childhood, describing an infant who was removed from the home of his biological parents at the age of six months because of their heavy drinking and criminal activity. Collings was then placed in a foster home and eventually adopted at age 8 by his foster parents.
Wanda Draper, an expert in human development, also testified for the defense about a chronological "life path" she developed for Collings after interviewing him, his family members and studying Collings' records. Draper's interview with Collings was conducted at the Barry County Jail in Cassville and lasted four hours.
Draper testified that in her opinion Collings developed "disorganized detachment disorder" at a very young age, because of the neglect he suffered at the hands of his biological parents, Dale and Barbara Pickett. She also claimed that Collings was functioning at the emotional level of a 14- or 15-year-old.
In reviewing Collings' life path for the jury, Draper talked about Collings' troubles in school, the time he spent in a psychiatric hospital for "intermittent explosive disorder" and his eventual placement in a youth detention center at age 16 for beating up an 11-year-old boy.
According to Draper, Collings also told her that he had been molested by a babysitter and sodomized by his biological mother's husband.
"Christopher didn't have consistent guidance in his life, and as a result of this, his behavior was not modulated," said Draper. "He didn't receive the grounding he needed to be in control of his actions."
On cross examination, Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Bock asked whether there were any records to back up Collings' claims of being molested and sodomized. Draper said there were not, and she admitted the allegations were made after Collings was in jail for the rape and murder of Rowan Ford.
Draper also told Bock she was being paid $175 an hour by the Missouri Public Defenders Office for her research and her testimony on behalf of Collings. Draper said she had testified in Missouri on more than 10 occasions over her 29-year career as a human development expert. She said all her testimony has been in death penalty cases and has been offered for the defense.
"You're not saying that because he had a detachment disorder that's the reason he killed this little girl?" asked Bock.
"No, I did not say that," answered Draper.
In his closing argument, Cox also referenced Draper's testimony.
"We heard a lot about Mr. Collings' childhood these past couple of days . . . at least, he got his childhood," said Cox. "He got to experience marriage, being a parent, driving a car . . . things that Rowan never even got to know about. Rowan would have been a teenager now if Mr. Collings hadn't picked his life over hers."