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Collings v. State

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

March 6, 2018



          Mary R. Russell, Judge

         Christopher Collings was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death following a jury trial. This Court affirmed the judgment and sentence on direct appeal in State v. Collings, 450 S.W.3d 741 (Mo. banc 2014). Collings timely filed a pro se motion to vacate, set aside, or correct the judgment and sentence. Counsel was appointed and timely filed an amended motion under Rule 29.15, raising 12 claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, two claims of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, and claims challenging the constitutional validity of section 562.076[1] regarding voluntary intoxication and the time limits. At an evidentiary hearing, Collings's trial and appellate counsel, two expert witnesses, and five other witnesses testified. The motion court overruled the motion, denying relief on all claims. Collings appeals.

         This Court holds the motion court's findings of fact and conclusions of law are not clearly erroneous and the motion court's judgment was not plainly erroneous regarding an unpreserved claim of error. The motion court's judgment denying postconviction relief is affirmed.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Nine-year-old Rowan Ford lived with her mother and stepfather, David Spears. For several months in early 2007, Christopher Collings lived with the Spears family but had since moved out.

         On November 2, 2007, Spears, Collings, and their friend Nathan Mahurin were drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana together at Spears's house. Later in the evening, the three men went to Collings's trailer and left Ford home alone. On the way, the men stopped at a convenience store and bought more alcohol. They continued drinking and smoking at Collings's trailer for about an hour, at which time Mahurin and Spears left. Wanting to avoid police, an intoxicated Mahurin decided to use the back roads to take Spears back to his home before returning to his own home by midnight.

         The next morning, Ford's mother returned from her overnight work shift and could not find her. After Ford's mother contacted the local sheriff's department and reported her missing, a large-scale search effort was launched to locate Ford.

         Deputies informally spoke to Collings about Ford's disappearance, and he recounted the events of the evening of November 2. Collings stated he was unaware of Ford's disappearance until speaking with the police and had not spoken to Spears since that night. Collings was interviewed several more times by local deputies and the FBI over the course of the next few days.

         Ford's body was found November 9 in a cave. She was nude from the waist down except for one sock and was covered in leaves and debris. The cause of death was later determined to be strangulation as indicated by the ligature mark on her neck. She had also been sexually assaulted and suffered injuries to her vaginal area.

         Once news broke that Ford's body had been located, Collings attempted to contact Wheaton Chief of Police Clinton Clark, whom Collings had known since he was a young boy, and the two men agreed to meet.

         Collings told Chief Clark what happened the evening of November 2 after Mahurin and Spears left his trailer. Collings recounted the same version of events until Mahurin and Spears left around 11:30 p.m. Collings said he knew Mahurin would drive the back roads to avoid potentially being pulled over by police because he was intoxicated. Collings further noted he took the highway, knowing he would arrive at Spears's home before the others. When Collings arrived at Spears's home, he walked through the house, used the bathroom, and then went into Ford's bedroom. He found her sleeping on the floor in her bedroom and carried her to his pickup truck. Collings drove them back to his trailer, and Ford did not wake during the drive. Once they arrived, Collings carried her inside, laid her on the bed, took off her pants and underwear, "used his finger on her a little, " and then had sexual intercourse with her for four to five minutes, possibly ejaculating. Ford awoke when he penetrated her, and she struggled.

         Collings told Chief Clark he intended to return Ford to her home. After sexually assaulting Ford, he led her outside facing away from him and kept the lights off so she could not see his face. Collings also ensured he did not speak so Ford could not recognize his voice. On the way back to the truck, however, moonlight allowed Ford to see Collings's face. Knowing she had recognized him, he "freaked out." Collings saw a coil of cord in the bed of his truck, looped it around Ford's neck, and started pulling. She fell to the ground after struggling for a bit, and he held the cord tight until she stopped moving.

         Collings put Ford's body in the bed of his truck and drove off without covering her body. He decided to put her body in a sinkhole inside a cave. Once he returned home, he burned Ford's pants and underwear and the cord he used to strangle her in a wood stove and burn barrel. Collings also burned his clothes and the mattress on which he sexually assaulted her after finding blood on them.

         Chief Clark and Collings returned to the sheriff's department so Collings could recount his story to the other local and federal law enforcement officials working on the investigation. This confession was not recorded, and Collings signed a consent form to search his property. He was taken to the Barry County Sheriff's Department and, after being advised of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), provided a recorded statement retelling the same events.

         Law enforcement officers were surprised by Collings's confession because, until then, they had assumed Spears killed Ford and Collings simply knew what happened. Local deputies questioned Spears again in light of Collings's confession. For the first time, however, Spears implicated himself. As a result, deputies and Chief Clark questioned Collings again in a recorded interview. They told him Spears confessed to calling his mother the evening of November 2, asking her to bring a vehicle to his house, and then joining Collings back at his trailer. Spears stated he also had sexual intercourse with Ford, was present when Collings killed her, [2] and helped dispose of her body. Collings, however, denied Spears was involved.

         While Collings gave the second recorded statement, his trailer and adjacent property were searched and authorities obtained evidence supporting Collings's confession. The evidence collected included rope and wire inside Collings's truck, a 55-gallon drum containing remnants of burned items, and a hair in the bed of his truck.

         Collings was charged with one count of first-degree murder. He was also initially charged with one count of forcible rape and one count of statutory rape. The rape charges were later severed from the murder charge, and both rape charges were eventually dismissed. At the end of the guilt phase, the jury found Collings guilty of first-degree murder.

         Both the State and Collings's trial counsel presented testimony evidence during the penalty phase. The State offered victim impact testimony from members of Ford's family, friends, and teachers who testified about the impact Ford's life and death had on them. Collings's trial counsel called two witnesses to support the defense theory of lingering doubt regarding Spears's involvement. Spears's mother also testified in support of the defense theory of lingering doubt concerning her son's role the evening of November 2. According to Spears's mother, her son called around midnight, asked her to drive to his home, left in her Suburban while she stayed at his house, and then returned by 7 a.m. A search and rescue dog handler testified two dogs trained to alert at the scent of human remains separately alerted on the Suburban's driver's side door, left rear quadrant, driver's seat, and rear cargo area. In addition, Collings's trial counsel called his biological father, brother, and two adoptive siblings to testify about his childhood.

         Finally, Collings's trial counsel called Dr. Wanda Draper, an educator in the field of human development, as an expert to testify about the phases in Collings's childhood. Her testimony focused on Collings's emotional development. Dr. Draper created a "Life Path" detailing severe emotional neglect during his first six months of life and confusion in his connections with his biological and adoptive family members.[3] Dr. Draper concluded, to a reasonable degree of developmental certainty, Collings suffered severe emotional neglect resulting in severe disorganized dissociative attachment.

         Dr. Draper further explained Collings's history concerning sexual abuse. He was sexually molested when he was six years old by his babysitter's 13-year-old son. Collings was also sodomized when he was 15 years old by his biological mother's new husband. Dr. Draper also stated Collings admitted to fondling his stepsister when she was 11, 14, and 16 years old, which Dr. Draper testified was consistent with Collings being sexually abused himself. Despite her testimony concerning Collings's history with sexual abuse, Dr. Draper did not explain any causal connection between his sexual abuse and any possible neurobiological impacts on Collings's brain development.

         At the conclusion of the penalty phase, the jury recommended death. It found Ford's murder involved torture and, pursuant to section 565.032.2(7), the murder was "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman." Additionally, the jury found Ford was a potential witness against Collings in a pending investigation of her rape and was killed as a result of her status. See sec. 565.032.2(12). The trial court sentenced Collings to death, and this Court affirmed the judgment and sentence on direct appeal. Collings, 450 S.W.3d 741.

         Collings timely filed pro se and amended motions seeking postconviction relief pursuant to Rule 29.15, raising 12 claims of ineffectiveness of both his trial and appellate counsel. After an evidentiary hearing, the motion court denied relief on all claims. Collings now appeals to this Court.[4]

         Standard of Review

         This Court will affirm a motion court's judgment denying postconviction relief unless its "findings and conclusions are clearly erroneous." Rule 29.15(k); Johnson v. State, 406 S.W.3d 892, 898 (Mo. banc 2013). A motion court's findings are presumed correct, and its judgment is clearly erroneous "only if this Court is left with a definite and firm impression that a mistake has been made." Id.

         To prevail on a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel, a postconviction movant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that counsel's performance failed to meet the test in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Under Strickland, a movant must establish (1) counsel failed to exercise the degree of skill and diligence that a reasonably competent attorney would in a similar situation and (2) the movant was prejudiced. Id. at 687; Johnson, 406 S.W.3d at 898-99. In a case in which the sentence imposed is death, prejudice is shown if the movant demonstrates "a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's deficient performance, the jury would have concluded the balance of aggravating and mitigating circumstances did not warrant death." Johnson, 406 S.W.3d at 899.


         I. Constitutional Challenge to Voluntary Intoxication Statute and Jury Instruction

         In his first point on appeal, Collings argues section 562.076 and its corresponding jury instruction violate his right to present a defense. Section 562.076.1 provides, "A person who is in an intoxicated or drugged condition, whether from alcohol, drugs or other substance, is criminally responsible for conduct unless such condition is involuntarily produced and deprived him of the capacity to know or appreciate the nature, quality or wrongfulness of his conduct."

         The State offered the following jury instruction based on MAI-CR 3d 310.50: "The state must prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in determining the defendant's guilt or innocence, you are instructed that an intoxicated or a drugged condition whether from alcohol or drugs will not relieve a person of responsibility for his conduct." Trial counsel objected to MAI-CF.3d 310.50 as limiting the defense but presented no evidence concerning Collings's alleged alcohol addiction or its effects on his mental capacity.

         According to Collings, this statue and jury instruction denied him due process by preventing him from presenting evidence rebutting the State's evidence of his ability to deliberate before killing Ford. A person is guilty of first-degree murder if he or she "knowingly causes the death of another person after deliberation upon the matter." Sec. 565.020.1. "Deliberation" is defined as "cool reflection for any length of time no matter how brief." Sec. 565.002(3).

         Collings contends his trial counsel were constitutionally deficient in failing to investigate and present evidence challenging the constitutional validity of section 562.076 and its corresponding jury instruction. He argues his trial counsel failed to offer modern scientific research on drug and alcohol addiction and their effects on brain behavior, which supports consideration of the fairness and constitutional validity of statutes restricting evidence of voluntary intoxication.

         "When a movant claims ineffective assistance of counsel for failure to locate and present expert witnesses, he must show that such experts existed at the time of trial, that they could have been located through reasonable investigation, and that the testimony of these witnesses would have benefited movant's defense." State v. Davis, 814 S.W.2d 593, 603-04 (Mo. banc 1991). Collings's postconviction counsel presented testimony from Dr. Melissa Piasecki, a board-certified forensic psychiatrist whose specialty was addiction neurobiology. Dr. Piasecki testified at the evidentiary hearing that, at the time of Collings's trial, well-accepted scientific research recognized addiction as a brain disease. According to Dr. Piasecki, long-term chemical exposure to addictive substances, such as alcohol, causes physical changes to the brain's structure and functioning.[5] These changes impact compulsive behavior and affect the addict's decision making, inhibition, planning, and impulse control.[6]

         Dr. Piasecki further testified about the genetic component to substance abuse, stating 50 percent of addiction is traceable to genetic factors and 50 percent is traceable to environmental factors. She listed the following as factors contributing to substance addiction: having a biological relative with an addiction disorder; childhood trauma or abuse; loss of parental figures; domestic violence; and family members with substance abuse and mental health disorders.

         Collings's postconviction counsel retained Dr. Piasecki to determine whether he had a history of substance abuse and addiction. Because both of his biological parents suffered serious problems with alcohol and drug addiction, Dr. Piasecki concluded Collings was genetically predisposed to addiction. Dr. Piasecki further testified Collings was first exposed to nicotine at a very young age and began using alcohol and marijuana when he was 14 years old. At 15 years old, Collings spent several weeks in an inpatient facility for adolescents with psychiatric problems. While there, he was prescribed a number of medications, including antidepressants and a sedative. Despite recommendations from the doctors that Collings continue receiving ongoing psychotherapy and an antidepressant, his family did not refill his prescription, and he continued smoking marijuana as a way to self-medicate his anxiety.

         Turning to the night of Ford's murder, Dr. Piasecki testified Collings would have been under "acute significant alcohol intoxication" after imbibing six six-packs of Smirnoff Ice Triple Black over the course of six hours with no food after lunch. That level of intoxication, according to Dr. Piasecki, would have resulted in aggressive brain functioning impairments, decreased inhibition, impaired comprehension, and a significantly compromised ability to pause and consider actions. She further testified people under acute significant alcohol intoxication further can lose their ability to record memories despite maintaining consciousness. Dr. Piasecki concluded Collings could have suffered such "blackouts" due to the amount of alcohol he consumed the night of November 2.

         At the evidentiary hearing, Dr. Piasecki concluded, in her expert opinion, the jury could not accurately assess Collings's mental state at the time of the murder without considering his history of alcohol and drug use. According to her, his level of intoxication at the time would have substantially impaired his capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or conform his conduct to the ...

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