Murder and rape charges have been dismissed against the stepfather of 9-year-old murder victim Rowan Ford.
On Sept. 26, David Spears, 29, of Stella, accepted the terms of a plea agreement and pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child, a Class C felony, and hindering prosecution, a Class D felony, at the Pulaski County Courthouse in Waynesville.
Spears, who has been held in Barry County Jail since his arrest back in November of 2007, was sentenced to 11 years in state prison. He will receive credit for the four years and 10 months he has already spent behind bars.
Under the terms of the agreement, the charges of murder in the first degree, forcible rape and statutory rape were dismissed without prejudice, which means if new evidence against Spears surfaces, charges against him could be re-filed.
According to a three-page press release provided by Barry County Prosecutor Johnnie Cox, the physical evidence collected and analyzed by three separate crime labs, including the FBI and Missouri State Highway Patrol crime labs, did not support Spears' confession that he participated in the rape and murder of Rowan.
The evidence was consistent with the confession of Christopher Collings, the 37-year-old man from Wheaton, who was sentenced to death for Rowan's murder following a jury trial in Rolla last spring.
"Over the course of time that this case has been pending, evidence other than his statement has been pursued to be used to prove David Spears was involved in the rape and murder of Rowan Ford," Cox stated. "During that time, no additional evidence implicating Mr. Spears has been developed. To the contrary, all of the physical evidence that has been analyzed and tested has either failed to implicate Mr. Spears or the results have been inconsistent with his initial statement."
According to testimony offered during his murder trial, Collings consistently and emphatically denied Spears' involvement in Rowan's murder. In his confession, Collings said he acted alone.
The physical evidence collected in the case supported Collings' story of what happened on the night of Nov. 2, 2007, when he took Rowan from her home in Stella, drove her to his trailer in Wheaton and then raped and murdered her before dumping her body in a cave near Powell.
Collings did not testify during his trial and did not recant his confession, which proved to be a crucial piece of evidence in the jury's guilty verdict. The state argued that Collings' statement was an accurate account of the events surrounding Rowan's murder even though Collings said Spears was not involved in the actual rape and murder.
"In David Spears' trial the state would be in a position to have to present David Spears' statement and argue its validity," explained Cox. "This would put the state in a position of arguing inconsistent theories of who actually strangled Rowan Ford."
This trial strategy would have put Spears' conviction at risk and could have created an argument for Collings' sentence to be overturned, according to Cox.
"This would be unacceptable to the state," said Cox. "Without physical evidence that is consistent with David Spears' statement, the state cannot and will not pursue a course of action that would put the Christopher Collings' conviction at risk."
In deciding not to pursue a murder conviction for Spears, Cox said he realizes the general public is convinced of Spears' guilt and is outraged at the vicious crime against a child.
"I am completely aware that the general public wants to see him (Spears) receive punishment for his alleged involvement," said Cox. "I am also aware that this is a horrific crime involving the most innocent of victims that any prosecutor will ever encounter.
"This type of crime should outrage everyone. I was outraged when I first heard about it. However, as a prosecutor, I am a minister of justice and must do what the law requires, what the facts require and what fairness and justice require. A prosecutor's duty is not to just seek convictions or win cases but to see that justice is done."
Cox said he does not know why Spears told law enforcement officers he was involved in Rowan's murder.
"I do know that there isn't any physical evidence to support David Spears' version of what happened," stated Cox.
Rowan's mother, Colleen Munson, was present in the courtroom during the sentencing of Spears, her ex-husband. Cox told Phelps County Circuit Judge Tracy L. Story that Munson was aware of the circumstances surrounding the plea agreement and was "agreeable" to it.
Spears appeared in the courtroom in street clothes with leg shackles. He was sworn in by the judge and answered questions about his understanding of the court proceedings from the witness stand.
In pleading guilty to the lesser charges, Spears admitted he endangered the welfare of Rowan by leaving his stepdaughter home alone to go drinking with his friends. He also confessed to asking Nathan Mahurin, a witness in the case, to lie about why he left Rowan alone.
When sentenced, Spears stood in front of the judge in the company of his two attorneys, Sharon Turlington and Cynthia Dryden from the State Public Defenders Office.
The state was represented by Cox and Elizabeth Bock with the State Attorney General's Office.
"Ms. Bock has been a tireless advocate while assisting my office in this case and has provided the state, Rowan Ford and her family an invaluable service in the pursuit of justice," said Cox.
In the end, Cox believes Rowan received the justice she deserved.
"Christopher Collings is on death row," said Cox. "Rowan Ford's rapist and killer has been brought to justice."