WHEATON, Minn. - In an attempt to shave more than a dozen years off his prison term, the man who admittedly murdered a 14-month-old girl in a church here last fall insisted Wednesday that he didn't mean to kill anyone when he cracked her skull with a baseball bat.
David Collins, taking the stand in his murder trial in Traverse County District Court, said that while he came to Thy Kingdom Come World Ministry to beat up the girl's stepfather, Claude Hankins, it wasn't his intent to kill him. His first swing of the bat missed Hankins and instead hit and killed the toddler, Aundrea Brownlow.
"What's done is done. The baby's gone, and it's my fault," Collins said during more than three hours of testimony often halted by sobbing. "I know in my heart I'm not a killer."
Determining whether Collins' bat attack meets the legal distinction of intent was the essential point of the three-day trial, which ended Wednesday without an immediate verdict.
If Judge Gerald Seibel, who's hearing the case instead of a jury at Collins' request, agrees with the prosecution that the murder was intentional, the state-recommended prison stint would range from 25½ years to 35½ years, depending on the defendant's criminal history.
Collins' lawyers agreed Wednesday to stipulate he was guilty of unintentional murder. Based on the state's sentencing guidelines, the 51-year-old would be looking at 12½ years to 20 years on the unintentional murder conviction.
Seibel said he'll hand down a written verdict on Wednesday.
"This next week's going to be tormenting," Collins' wife, Malissa Collins, told his defense attorney after the trial ended.
In his closing argument, lead prosecutor Alfred Zdrazil said it was clear Collins was swinging at Hankins' head, noting that two doctors - the medical examiner and the neurosurgeon who tried to save Brownlow's life - testified the blow that killed her was forceful enough to also kill an adult.
"Common sense tells us they have only one thought in mind: to kill somebody," Zdrazil said of anyone swinging a bat that hard at a person's head.
Collins testified, as did previous witnesses, that a disagreement on Sept. 3 with Hankins over a used washer and dryer and a $20 debt escalated from cuss-filled verbal sparring to a fist fight outside Thy Kingdom Come, the now-closed church founded by the Rev. Danny Barnes.
After Hankins beat him badly in the fist fight, leaving him with one eye swollen completely shut, Collins came back a short time later with a baseball bat and entered the church through the back door.
By that time, it wasn't about the $20 or the appliances, Collins testified. He said he was convinced that Hankins and Barnes were going to come after him because he didn't give up the washer and dryer that Barnes wanted him to provide to the newly married Hankins.
"I was going to confront the problem before it came to me," Collins said, adding that he considered Hankins to be one of the pastor's "goons" who would physically intimidate congregants for Barnes.
Barnes, an ex-pimp who became a preacher, is now serving an 11½-year prison term on convictions related to an unrelated home invasion he says was a drug intervention.
Zdrazil pointed out in cross-examination that Collins never mentioned a concern about a reprisal from Barnes or Hankins when he was questioned by investigators after he turned himself in. He was arrested after being picked up at a South Dakota bar by Barnes and his wife.
Collins claimed he was attempting to strike Hankins in the side with his first try at hitting him. He said he didn't feel the bat hit Brownlow and would have stopped if he had.
The half-dozen or so overhead blows that came after, which badly damaged the chair that Hankins held in front of him as a shield, were never meant to hit Hankins' head, the defendant testified. Collins claimed those swings were only meant to frighten Hankins and convince him to leave him alone.
"He looked scared. That's why I stopped," Collins said.
Carter Greiner, the lead attorney for Collins, argued in closing that his client's testimony matched forensic evidence and was more credible than conflicting accounts by the state's witnesses. He said there wasn't sufficient evidence to support the assertion that Collins meant to kill Hankins, which legally would make him just as liable in Brownlow's death.
Greiner said the effort to scare off perceived threats with physical violence was a way of life in Thy Kingdom Come's "bizarre, dominant-male culture."
"This incident didn't happen in a vacuum," he said.
Zdrazil had a far more blunt assessment of Brownlow's killing in his closing argument.
"She died because David Collins could not stand to be disrespected," he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535