WAYNESVILLE, Mo. -- Prosecutors on Wednesday dropped murder and rape charges against the stepfather of a 9-year-old girl who was killed in Barry County in November 2007. David Spears, who was married to the mother of Rowan Ford, instead pleaded guilty for endangering the welfare of a child and hindering prosecution.
Rowan disappeared from her home in Stella, south of Neosho in Newton County. Her body was found in a cave or sinkhole in McDonald County a week later. Spears and Chris Collings, a friend of Spears, were charged with first-degree murder and rape, and prosecutors sought a death penalty against both men.
After many delays in both trials, which were moved out of Barry County to try to ensure fair outcomes, Collings was tried last March in Rolla. A jury convicted him and recommended a death penalty, which Circuit Judge Mary Sheffield imposed in May. Years of appeals will follow that verdict before the state is allowed to carry out that sentence.
Spears, who is divorced from Rowan's mother, Colleen Munson, was scheduled to go on trial here in late October. A routine pretrial conference was scheduled on Wednesday morning for attorneys and Circuit Judge Tracy Storie to go over the questions that would be posed to jurors. Instead, prosecutors announced a plea agreement in which they dropped charges of first-degree murder, forcible rape and statutory rape in exchange for guilty pleas to the two lesser charges.
The judge accepted the plea agreement and sentenced Spears to consecutive prison sentences of seven years and four years. Spears will get credit for the five years that he has served while awaiting trial, so he could be out of prison in a couple of years or less.
Prosecutors say new analysis of the evidence by an independent lab, as well as results from the Missouri State Crime Laboratory and FBI lab, do not corroborate Spears' confession that he participated in Rowan's rape and murder. They also noted that Collings said he alone did those crimes, a confession that was backed up by the jury's verdict in Collings' trial.
If Spears had gone to trial for rape and murder, prosecutors would have had to argue a different theory of the case than the one they presented in Collings' trial. Using that inconsistent theory could have endangered their defense of Collings' appeals. It's also illegal. The Missouri Attorney General's Office helped Barry County Prosecuting Attorney Johnnie Cox prosecute Collings and Spears.
After the hearing, defense attorneys said they believe law enforcement officers got Spears to confess after his arrest by convincing him that he blacked out and couldn't remember participating in the rape and murder. Spears told investigators that he strangled Rowan while Collings aided and encouraged him to do so. Collings always maintained that he alone killed Rowan, and prosecutors used that confession against him at his trial, even though Collings did not testify before jurors.
"I am completely aware that the general public is convinced that David Spears was involved. I am also completely aware that the general public wants to see him receive punishment for his alleged involvement. I am also aware that this is a horrific crime involving the most innocent of victims that any prosecutor will ever encounter," Cox wrote in a three-page statement detailing the decision to drop murder and rape charges against Spears.
"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. Only the prosecutor and the judge have this duty in the legal system.
"I have very serious concerns about David Spears' statement in light of the new evidence and the steady accumulation of evidence inconsistent with David Spears' statement. I don't know why David Spears told law enforcement he was involved. I do know that Christopher Collings adamantly denied David Spears' involvement," Cox wrote. "And I do know that there isn't any physical evidence to support David Spears' version of what happened."
On Wednesday, defense attorneys and prosecutors were vague about whether Spears was with Collings when Collings raped and killed Rowan.
In his guilty pleas, Spears admitted to leaving Rowan alone at the family's home while he went drinking with some buddies. He also admitted that he told another man to lie to law enforcement officials about why he left Rowan alone at the home. The seven-year and four-year sentences are the maximum penalties for those two crimes.
Munson was in the courtroom on Wednesday but chose not to speak to reporters. Cox said in his statement that he talked to Rowan's family over the past several weeks after getting new evidence from labs that contradicted Spears' confessioni.