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State v. Collings

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

August 19, 2014


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Collings was represented by Rosemary M. Percival of the public defender's office in Kansas City.

The state was represented by Richard A. Starnes of the attorney general's office in Jefferson City.

GEORGE W. DRAPER III, JUDGE. Russell, C.J., Breckenridge, Stith, Wilson and Teitelman, JJ., concur; Fischer, J., concurs in separate opinion filed.


George W. Draper III, Judge

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Christopher L. Collings (hereinafter, " Collings" ) was tried and found guilty by a jury of first degree murder pursuant to

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section 565.020, RSMo 2000.[1] Collings was sentenced to death, consistent with the jury's recommendation. This Court has exclusive jurisdiction. Mo. Const. art. V, sec. 3. For the reasons set forth below, this Court finds no reversible error in any of the points raised and the sentence imposed is proportional to the crime as required under section 565.035.3. The circuit court's judgment is affirmed.

Factual and Procedural History

Nine-year-old Rowan Ford (hereinafter, " Rowan" ) lived with her mother, Colleen Munson (hereinafter " Colleen" ), and her stepfather, David Spears (hereinafter, " Spears" ) in Stella, Missouri, located in Newton County. Spears had been friends with Collings for many years. Collings lived with Spears' family for several months during the summer and fall of 2007. Collings slept in the basement, and Rowan referred to him as " Uncle Chris." Collings moved to his family's farm in late October 2007 and lived in a travel trailer on the property, located in Wheaton, Missouri, in Barry County.

On the evening of Friday, November 2, 2007, Nathan Mahurin (hereinafter, " Mahurin" ), a mutual friend of Collings and Spears, met them at a farm where they were working. They went to a liquor store to buy two or three six packs of malt liquor and then went to Spears' home to play pool and drink. At 8:30 p.m., Colleen left for work and left Rowan in Spears' care. The men continued to drink after purchasing more alcohol.

Later that evening, Collings asked Mahurin to drive him home. Mahurin and Collings talked Spears into going with them and leaving Rowan home alone, asleep on the floor in her bedroom. On the way to Collings' trailer, the men stopped to buy more alcohol. At Collings' trailer, they continued to drink and smoked marijuana. After an hour, Mahurin and Spears left to go home. Mahurin decided to take the back roads instead of the direct highway route to Spears' house because he was intoxicated and he did not want to get stopped by the police. Mahurin dropped off Spears and returned home by midnight.

On November 3rd, Colleen returned home from her overnight work shift at 9:00 a.m. and could not find Rowan. After searching the house, Colleen woke Spears and asked him where Rowan was. Spears told Colleen that Rowan was staying with a friend, but he could not identify the friend. Colleen walked the neighborhood searching for Rowan to no avail. Colleen wanted Spears to call the police, but he insisted Rowan was at a friend's house. When Rowan did not return that afternoon, Colleen contacted the Newton County sheriff's department to report Rowan missing, at which time a large scale search was launched to find her. Spears, Mahurin, and Collings were all considered " persons of interest" because they were the last people to see Rowan at the house.

On November 4th, Newton County deputies spoke with Collings on the parking lot of a local restaurant about Rowan's disappearance. Collings gave the deputies the same account Mahurin did about their activities that evening, but omitted that they had smoked marijuana. Collings told the deputies he stayed home and went to sleep after Mahurin and Spears left. Collings denied speaking to Spears since he left and claimed he was unaware Rowan was missing until the police spoke to him. The deputies described Collings as cooperative, concerned, and polite. Later that evening, Collings visited Colleen at her

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home, asked how the search was going, and offered to help find Rowan.

On November 5th, the FBI became involved in the investigation. While Newton County deputies continued to interview Spears, FBI technicians seized and searched Spears' pickup truck and a vehicle Spears' mother said she loaned Spears after Mahurin dropped him off on the night Rowan disappeared. In the meantime, Newton County deputies approached Collings at work and requested he answer more questions. Collings agreed and drove himself to the sheriff's department. Collings gave a similar statement to the one he had given the day before. Collings was read his Miranda rights after being questioned about Spears' potential involvement in Rowan's disappearance. Collings indicated that he understood his rights and waived them. Collings also agreed to submit to a polygraph test and a Computer Voice Stress Analysis (CVSA) test.[2] Collings was read his rights again prior to testing and waived them. After the testing was completed, Collings spoke to the deputies. Collings insisted he knew nothing about Rowan's disappearance and offered to help in the search.

Later that afternoon, Wheaton Chief of Police Clinton Clark (hereinafter, " Chief Clark" ) was on routine patrol in Wheaton. Collings and Chief Clark had a relationship spanning seventeen years. Chief Clark had known Collings since he was a young boy, he was close friends with Collings' adoptive mother, and he knew Collings' adoptive father. Collings trusted Chief Clark and turned to him for advice, sought solace from him when Collings' mother died, and made a point to visit Chief Clark when he came to visit when he lived out of town.

Collings flagged down Chief Clark, told him that Rowan was missing, and he was trying to find her. Chief Clark described Collings as " kind of excited" and " not his normal self." Chief Clark encouraged Collings to continue to do what he could to help find Rowan. After speaking to Collings, Chief Clark notified the FBI that Collings contacted him about Rowan's disappearance. Chief Clark told the FBI that he and Collings had a long-standing relationship and a good rapport. Chief Clark believed Collings knew something about Rowan's disappearance and offered his help in the investigation. Chief Clark was encouraged by the FBI and Newton County deputies to continue to talk with Collings.

That evening, Collings went to Colleen's home to speak to her about the investigation. The FBI spoke to Colleen and Collings individually at Colleen's home. Collings was described as cooperative, and he gave the same account of the evening's activities as he had given previously. Collings spoke about his relationship with Spears, told the FBI he believed Spears was involved in Rowan's disappearance, and offered to wear a wire to help the investigation. Collings also suggested locations in which to search for Rowan.

On November 6th, law enforcement officials continued to search for Rowan, but the focus of the investigation was on Spears. Spears was interviewed repeatedly, his home was searched, and he was driven around the area in an effort to find Rowan. In the late afternoon or early evening, Collings went to Chief Clark's office to let him know he had spoken to the FBI and was active in the search to find Rowan, even suggesting places for them to

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search. Chief Clark believed Collings " had something on his mind" and appeared " apprehensive." Collings would not make eye contact with Chief Clark, which was unusual. Chief Clark told Collings that he knew how to contact him if he needed help with anything. After this conversation, Chief Clark contacted the FBI and told them about his talk with Collings. The FBI believed if Collings were going to confess or reveal any information, it would be to Chief Clark. Hence, the FBI encouraged Chief Clark to help in the investigation, to which Chief Clark agreed.

On November 7th, Collings met with the FBI at the Newton County sheriff's department. Collings consented to provide a buccal swab for DNA testing. Collings executed consent forms to search a safe he owned located at Spears' home, his property, and trailer. Collings submitted to additional testing, which required a voluntary waiver of his rights. Afterwards, Collings was interviewed, but not Mirandized. Collings spoke with the FBI about an alibi Spears presented for the night Rowan disappeared, which Collings said was untrue. As the interview progressed, Collings became more emotional, tense, and nervous when asked about Rowan. Collings told the agents that if they were going to accuse him of being involved with Rowan's disappearance, he was not going to talk to them anymore. This concluded the interview.

In the evening, Collings went to Chief Clark's office and was very upset about his FBI interview that day. Collings told Chief Clark he was going to " dummy up about anything else...," and maybe he needed to get a lawyer. Chief Clark told Collings that was his right, but he also encouraged Collings to continue to do anything he could to help find Rowan and stated it was not in his best interest to stop cooperating. Collings told Chief Clark, " [I]f I have anything else to say, I'll talk to you." Chief Clark then advised Collings of his Miranda rights. Collings agreed to speak and signed a waiver form. Chief Clark told Collings he felt there was something on his mind and asked if he knew anything about Rowan's disappearance. Collings began to cry and stated he always loved Rowan and would not have done anything to hurt her. At this point, someone came into the police department, interrupting their conversation, which caused Collings to leave abruptly.

Chief Clark contacted the FBI after his discussion with Collings. Chief Clark informed them he believed Collings was " near a breaking point" and suggested Collings needed a day off from questioning. Chief Clark further advised Collings was " about to lawyer [up]" and he tried to dissuade him from doing that and encouraged him to continue to cooperate.

On November 8th, Collings had no contact with law enforcement. Chief Clark spoke with the FBI about Collings, the dynamics of his family, and Chief Clark's unique relationship with him. Chief Clark thought Collings knew something about Rowan's disappearance but believed they needed to find her body first. The FBI told Chief Clark once they found Rowan's body, they wanted him to be the one to speak to Collings.

On November 9th, Rowan's body was discovered at the bottom of a sinkhole known as Fox Cave. The sinkhole was twenty to thirty feet from the road in a heavily wooded area. Rowan was nude from the waist down, except for one sock. She had a ligature mark around her neck and trauma, blood, and tissue damage to her vaginal area. She was covered with leaves and debris.

Chief Clark heard about Rowan's body being found on the news that morning. He received a page from his office that

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Collings came by asking for him and inquired about what time he came on duty because Collings needed to speak to him. Chief Clark was contacted by the FBI, who directed him to find Collings and tell him that they found Rowan's body.

Chief Clark went looking for Collings, but to no avail. Collings called Chief Clark on his cellular telephone and asked if law enforcement officers were following him in a gray minivan. Chief Clark denied knowing about any surveillance being conducted. Collings relayed how he had been driving " all over the area ... trying shake it" and that he was nervous and felt threatened. Chief Clark advised Collings to go to the police department, but Collings suggested they meet up.

After they met, Collings told Chief Clark they needed to talk and agreed to ride back to the police department in Chief Clark's patrol car. They discussed the gray minivan, and Collings indicated he was worried that people might take matters into their own hands now that Rowan's body had been recovered. Chief Clark told Collings he could not protect him twenty-four hours a day and could not guarantee his safety.

When they arrived at the police department, Chief Clark read Collings his Miranda rights. Collings indicated he understood his rights and agreed to talk. Chief Clark told Collings, " [W]ell, son, it's over.... We found Rowan's body this morning." Collings dropped his head and his eyes began to water. Chief Clark believed Spears " had done something" to Rowan and suspected Collings had knowledge of what Spears did. Chief Clark told Collings he needed to tell him what Spears did to Rowan, to which Collings reacted with surprise and looked at Chief Clark " kind of funny." The police department was busy and Collings indicated he did not want to talk with so many people nearby. Chief Clark recommended they go somewhere quiet to talk. Collings suggested they go to the Muncie Bridge, located a few miles outside of Wheaton.

Chief Clark contacted law enforcement officials to inform them he and Collings were headed to the Muncie Bridge. After they arrived, Collings held his hands out, indicating Chief Clark ought to handcuff him. Chief Clark stated that was not necessary, to which Collings replied, " [F]or what I am about to tell you, you will." Collings and Chief Clark sat on a slope near the bridge, and Collings told him what occurred the evening Rowan disappeared.

Collings relayed the same story he maintained all week about his activities up until the time Mahurin and Spears left his trailer. Collings confirmed that Mahurin and Spears took the back roads home to avoid being detected because they wanted to finish drinking and smoking marijuana. Collings told Chief Clark he knew if he hurried, he could get back over to Spears' house and get Rowan " out of there" before the other men returned. Collings took the highway, which was the " quickest route" back to Spears' house. Once back at Spears' house, Collings went in, used the bathroom, and retrieved Rowan off of the floor in her bedroom. Collings carried Rowan, who was still sleeping, outside and put her inside his pickup truck. Rowan remained asleep during the drive back to Collings' trailer. Collings carried Rowan inside, placed her on the bed, and removed her pajama pants and underwear. Collings did not speak to Rowan so she would not recognize his voice and kept the lights off so that she would not see him. Collings then said, " I had sex with her" in the " missionary position" and also " used my finger a little bit." Rowan woke up when Collings penetrated her, struggled at first, and then stopped. Intercourse lasted a

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few minutes, and Collings could not remember if he ejaculated.

Afterward, Collings told Chief Clark he intended to return Rowan to her house. Collings said he took Rowan outside; he held her in front of him by her arms and facing away from him so she would not see his face. Rowan looked back over her shoulder and could see Collings in the moonlight. Collings knew Rowan recognized him and " freaked out." In an old pickup truck sitting on the property, Collings saw a coil of " chicken house rope" and looped it around Rowan's neck. Collings remained behind Rowan and pulled the rope tight around her neck with his fists clenched, pulling his arms away from each other. Rowan struggled, but Collings said he " kept it tight" even after Rowan stopped struggling and fell to the ground. Eventually, Rowan stopped moving.

Collings realized he " was in a lot of trouble" and put Rowan's body in the bed of his pickup truck. Collings planned to dispose of Rowan's body off of the Muncie Bridge, but rejected that idea because he thought her body would be discovered too quickly. As Collings drove around considering his options, he decided to go to Fox Cave. Collings told Chief Clark he threw Rowan's body into the sinkhole and tried to pull some branches and limbs over to cover the entrance to the sinkhole, but it was too big and the debris fell inside.

Collings got back into his pickup truck and returned to his trailer. At the trailer, Collings discovered blood on his mattress and his clothes, which he did not remove when he had sex with Rowan. Collings said he knew he needed to get rid of these items, in addition to Rowan's pajama pants, her underwear, and the rope he used to strangle her. Collings put everything except the mattress into a wood stove and burned it. Collings rolled up the mattress and put it into a fifty-five gallon drum used as a burn barrel with some old carpet. Collings said, " I got to thinking, now that's gonna make a hell of a fire. Somebody's gonna see that burning." Collings then dragged the barrel into a barn and set the contents on fire to avoid detection.

When Collings finished talking, he and Chief Clark returned to the Wheaton police department because Chief Clark wanted the other law enforcement officials involved in the investigation to hear Collings' story. During the ride back to the police department, Collings rode in the front seat, smoked a cigarette, and was not handcuffed. Collings was advised of his rights, and deputies from Barry and Newton County, along with the FBI, listened as Collings repeated his confession. Collings executed a consent form to allow a search of his property during this interview. This interview was not recorded.

Afterward, Collings was transported to the Barry County sheriff's department, where he gave a videotaped statement after being advised of his rights. Collings said on the videotape he had been advised of his rights " several times" throughout the week. Collings repeated the same series of events during the first videotaped statement. Collings felt guilty and remorseful and said he had been " bawling like a baby all afternoon."

Collings' confession was surprising to the investigators because they were operating under the assumption that Spears killed Rowan and Collings merely had knowledge of the event. As a result, Newton County deputies questioned Spears again, at which time Spears implicated himself. Upon learning this, Collings was questioned again at Barry County in a recorded interview. The deputies and Chief Clark told Collings that Spears stated he called his mother, had her bring a vehicle to his home, and then he joined

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Collings back at his trailer. Spears stated he also had sex with Rowan, was there when Collings killed her, and helped Collings dispose of her body. Collings vehemently and repeatedly denied Spears had any involvement in Rowan's rape, murder, and disposal of her body.

Collings' trailer and adjacent properties were searched while Collings gave the second videotaped statement. Among the items collected were: a rusted metal spool inside the bed of an old pickup truck; a piece of string or twine found on the driver's side floor of the old pickup truck; rope or wire found inside Collings' pickup truck; a fifty-five gallon drum with burned remnants inside; a burn pile that contained an item appearing to be a cord; ashes collected from a woodstove; and a light-to-medium brown hair, found in the bed of Collings' pickup truck.

The autopsy revealed Rowan died from ligature strangulation. Rowan was conscious for approximately ten seconds, quit breathing after approximately two to three minutes, and would have been brain dead in approximately twelve minutes. Rowan's body had signs of decomposition. The body had additional small scrapes, bruises, and injuries inflicted prior to death and significant facial trauma likely inflicted after her death as a result of being thrown into the sinkhole. The body also had a laceration approximately 3/4 of an inch long from her vagina to her anus. This laceration was consistent with blunt force trauma inflicted by a penis, which caused significant bleeding and would have been very painful. During the autopsy, a rape kit was collected, including vaginal swabs, blood samples, and two foreign hairs from Rowan's pubic area.

Collings was charged with one count of first degree murder, one count of forcible rape, and one count of statutory rape. The murder charge was severed from the rape charges, which later were dismissed. Venue was changed to Phelps County, and a jury was selected from Platte County.

Collings filed a motion to suppress, seeking to exclude evidence of all statements taken from him by law enforcement agents throughout the entire investigation and all evidence obtained from the searches of his body, pickup truck, trailer, and property. The circuit court overruled Collings' motion, finding Collings was not in custody for any of the interviews until November 9th, after he returned to the Wheaton police department with Chief Clark and met with other law enforcement officers to give a statement.

At the conclusion of the guilt phase, the jury found Collings guilty of murdering Rowan. During the penalty phase, the State presented victim impact testimony from six witnesses. Collings presented two witnesses who offered testimony about Spears' potential involvement in Rowan's murder. Collings' family members testified describing Collings' tumultuous upbringing, his shuffling back and forth between his biological and adoptive parents who had significant substance abuse and legal issues, and the issues he encountered as a teenager and young adult. Collings also presented testimony from an expert in the field of human development that explained Collings was handicapped developmentally due to severe emotional neglect during the first six months of his life and beyond. As a result, the expert testified Collings suffered confusion in his connections with other people that resulted in a diagnosis of " severe disorganized disassociative attachment disorder" and " intermittent explosive personality disorders."

After the penalty phase, the jury recommended a sentence of death. The jury found Rowan's murder involved torture, and, as a result thereof, the murder was outrageously and wantonly vile, horrible,

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and inhumane. The jury also determined Rowan was a potential witness in a pending investigation of her rape and was killed as a result of her status as a potential witness. Collings was sentenced to death and now appeals.

Standard of Review

This Court reviews a sentence of death on direct appeal for prejudice, not just mere error. State v. McFadden, 369 S.W.3d 727, 736 (Mo. banc 2012). This Court will reverse a circuit court's decision only when an alleged error is so prejudicial that the defendant was deprived of a fair trial. State v. Johnson, 284 S.W.3d 561, 568 (Mo. banc 2009). Prejudice exists when there is a reasonable probability that the circuit court's error affected the outcome at trial. Id. Evidence admitted at trial is reviewed in the light most favorable to the verdict. McFadden, 369 S.W.3d at 736. Issues that were not preserved may be reviewed for plain error only, which requires the reviewing court to find that manifest injustice or a miscarriage of justice has resulted from the circuit court error. State v. Baumruk, 280 S.W.3d 600, 607 (Mo. banc 2009); Rule 30.20.

Point I -- Motion to Suppress

Collings argues the circuit court erred in overruling his motion to suppress his November 9th statements and physical evidence and admitting them at the trial in violation of his right to be free from self-incrimination and unreasonable searches and seizures. At his suppression hearing, Collings challenged each contact with every law enforcement official as coercive and involuntary. Collings argues the totality of the circumstances shows that he did not confess voluntarily ...

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