ROLLA, Mo. - Jurors deciding if a man will live or die heard the impact his nine-year-old victim’s death had on her family, friends and small community. Chris Collings is one of two men charged with the rape and murder of Rowan Ford. During a separate trial scheduled for October her step-father, David Spears, is facing the same charges.
After roughly four hours of deliberation, a jury of seven women and five men found Collings guilty of murder in the first degree. The prosecution is arguing aggravating factors or reasons Collings should get the death penalty. His attorneys are arguing mitigating factors or reasons he should get life without parole.
For most of the trial, Rowan Ford was portrayed through her fourth grade yearbook photo. It was the last yearbook picture she would take. Jurors also viewed graphic crime scene photos of the little girl. On Wednesday, jurors heard what type of vibrant, young girl she was before her life was cut short.
The Barry County Prosecutor handed Ford’s sister, Ariane Parsons, a brown paper evidence bag wrapped in red tape. The bag held a purple, fuzzy diary that Parsons left in the family’s home. She moved out shortly after she turned eighteen and before her younger sister‘s murder. On the witness stand she flipped to the last entry. It wasn’t her handwriting but instead the penmanship of her murdered sister. "She (Ford) wrote ‘this is my sister's diary. She moved. What should I do?’" Parsons told jurors she felt like her sister's protector and at times a mother figure. Their mother worked the overnight shift at a local Wal-Mart. “I felt responsibility because I left her there,” Parsons said. “I was supposed to be protecting her from anybody.”
Parsons is not the only person in Ford's life that blamed themselves or asked if anything else could have been done. “I blamed myself for what happened to Rowan,” Ford’s fourth grade teacher Todd Holt said through tears. During questioning from Collings’ attorneys, he told jurors he made several hotline calls to report possible neglect because Ford often had lice and would arrive early each day she came to school. “Nothing was done,” Holt said. “My classroom had too many memories. I got real depressed. I got angry at myself. I got angry at everyone, I got angry at God and it tore me apart.” He says he sought professional help to cope with the grief and so did the young girl's mother.
Colleen Munson, who was once Colleen Spears, says she would wait in her front yard everyday just in case her missing daughter came home. Instead detectives found her body at the bottom of a McDonald County cave. Munson is receiving psychiatric care and says she has been unable to hold down a steady job for about two years. She told jurors she quit working at her job at the local Wal-Mart because customers would constantly ask her about her daughter. The mother says it caused her to relive her loss everyday. She even contemplated suicide. “Six months after Rowan was found, I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Munson said while crying.
Her children felt the same overwhelming pain. “It impacted my whole family. Everyone in my family went into deep depression,” Parsons said. “There has been times my mom thought about suicide, my older sister the same and myself the same.” Parsons says she moved out of the home partially because Collings would make inappropriate statements to her and grope her. She told jurors she never saw Collings act inappropriately toward her little sister. "It's impacted me so bad I tried to cut myself, tried to kill myself several times," Parsons said.
The mother and grandmother of Ford’s childhood best friend also took the stand. “It’s the closest thing I know to going through losing a child," neighbor April Counts said. “I don't know what Colleen is going through.” Since Ford’s death in 2007, the Counts family buys an ornament for her every Christmas. Counts says Ford and her son innocently rode bikes together, swam together and sat side by side in church. The boy’s grandmother took the stand and said she missed “everything” about the nine-year-old.
Everything was taken from the “studious” fourth grader. Her classmates are now in eighth grade. “Rowan was quiet, she was shy, she was a charismatic little girl and a girl every teacher would hope for,” Holt said. “She was doing what she could do to get ahead in life.”
Jurors will decide what should happen to the man who is convicted of causing the girl to remain a memory that is forever young. “I remember looking for her on the playground. She came skipping by me,” fourth grade teacher Tammy Marshall said. “She looked so happy.” Marshall offered to fix Ford’s hair the last day she saw her alive. Marshall says the young girl’s hair was often messy or matted. She told Ford to come in early on the day that would be her last at school. Marshall put Ford’s hair in a neat ponytail. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Rowan,” Marshall said.
Ford’s teachers also explained the impact Ford’s disappearance and death had on their students. In order to start the healing process, they eventually made the difficult decision to remove the young girl's desk from the classroom. A memorial for Ford sits in the school’s library because her classmates “won’t be in fourth grade forever.” Each student in the kindergarten through eighth grade school can visit the library. A Dogwood tree was also painted pink in her honor. A cement angel rests near Ford’s outdoor memorial.
On Thursday, Collings attorneys will call several witnesses to the stand. They plan to present a “life path” that shows Collings’ life from birth to present day. They say he suffered from an attachment disorder. He and his siblings were removed from his parent's home. His attorneys say both of his biological parents were involved in criminal activity. “We are going to tell you about Chris Collings, who he is, where he is from,” one of his attorneys told jurors on Wednesday. “Witnesses will explain why he became the way he is today." They are asking jurors to sentence him to life in prison without parole.
Court resumes at 8:30 Thursday morning in the Phelps County Courthouse.