Circuit Judge Jeff Harris in the days ahead will decide whether statements made by a disabled child can be used as evidence against her mother, who is accused of trafficking the girl in exchange for cash and cocaine.
Boone County prosecutors charged 49-year-old Renee M. Collins in August 2018 with second-degree trafficking of a child under 18 and first-degree child endangerment. Collins’ boyfriend, William A. Thomas Jr., 44, of Rocheport, is charged with first-degree rape of the victim.
A trial date for Collins is looming, but not yet set. Thomas is scheduled for trial Oct. 1 in Boone County.
On Monday, Harris will consider a motion in both cases for the girl to testify without the defendants present in the courtroom. That will be followed Thursday by a hearing on whether statements made by the girl to investigators and others can be used against both defendants. Hearsay evidence is generally not allowed in court proceedings, but in a 491 hearing, a judge determines whether it can be used in limited instances to protect vulnerable victims.
The hearing takes its name from Chapter 491 of the Missouri statutes, which outlines the circumstances, such as domestic violence cases or sex crimes against children, where hearsay can be admitted.
“The hearing basically creates an exception to the hearsay rule for children under the age of 14 or vulnerable people,” Assistant Prosecutor Jessica Caldera said. “Someone who as the result of impaired intelligence or a psychiatric disorder that materially affects their ability to function, can be a vulnerable person. And we can file these 491 motions so that they don't have to repeat their story again and again.”
Harris will have to decide if the statements made to potential witnesses were reliable and ensure the victim was not led to formulate a certain answer. Timing, context of the conversations and the circumstances will all come into play.
“The question the court is going to be trying to answer is, based on the time, context and circumstances surrounding the victims statements, do those statements have a sufficient indicia of reliability, Caldera said. “We are looking to make sure nobody was telling the victim what to say, that things were spontaneous and that they are credible, so there is a likelihood of accuracy and truthfulness.
The victim will not be present at the 491 hearing, which is open to the public. It’s not clear at this time if she will be called to testify at trial.
“She is not getting on the stand at this hearing,” Caldera said. “There is the potential down the line that she would testify. And then her identity, and anything that would lead to her identity, is going to be confidential. But the hearing itself is open to the public.”
The FBI and Columbia Police Department in July 2017 received information from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that the victim was being left inside rooms with strange men at the Welcome Inn hotel at 1612 N. Providence Rd, according to charging documents.
Authorities went to the hotel to investigate and a witness told them of an incident where two men offered Collins cocaine to have sex with the victim, according to charging documents. The witness said she asked the victim about the men, and the child described the sexual activity taking place and referred to them as “just the bad men.”
The victim was placed in protective custody that same day investigators spoke with the witness. In subsequent interviews, she told investigators how she was raped in exchange for cocaine provided to her mother. The victim also allegedly told investigators she was also raped by Thomas.
According to court documents, the victim is diagnosed with cerebral palsy and autism, is partially deaf, uses corrective leg braces and has the mental capacity of a 2- to 3-year-old child.