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Dave Roepke, Published May 27 2010

Judge: Toddler’s death not intentional

The man who killed a 14-month-old girl with an errant swing of a baseball bat in a Wheaton, Minn., church didn’t mean to murder the toddler, a judge ruled on Wednesday.

The not guilty verdict on the charge of intentional murder could make a big difference in the length of time David Eric Collins, 51, will spend behind bars for killing Aundrea Brownlow last fall.

Had Judge Gerald Seibel ruled Collins was guilty of intentional murder, he’d be facing up to 35½ years in prison under Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines.

Instead, Collins could get 12½ years to 20 years for the unintentional murder charge he admitted to during a three-day trial in Wheaton last week.

The trial, heard by Seibel instead of a jury at Collins’ request, was held to determine whether Collins was trying to kill either the girl or her stepfather when he came in a fit of rage to Thy Kingdom Come church on Sept. 3, 2009.

Collins was swinging at Claude Hankins, stepfather to Brownlow, but accidentally hit the girl. Hankins and Collins had had a cuss-filled argument and then a fistfight earlier in the day, a disagreement that began over a $20 debt and a used washer and dryer.

Prosecutors argued that the force demonstrated by the brain injury Brownlow sustained when her skull was fractured and Collins swinging at Hankins’ head showed he meant to kill the stepfather. That made the murder of Brownlow intentional, they argued.

Collins, in a tearful three hours of testimony, swore he didn’t mean to murder anyone. His attorneys said there wasn’t enough proof to show beyond reasonable doubt that Collins came to

the church swinging to kill.

Siding with the defense in a written verdict, Seibel said the medical evidence about the force of the fatal blow didn’t clearly show it would have killed an adult if it had landed.

Seibel also noted some of the swings weren’t directed at Hankins’ head, Collins couldn’t see Brownlow due to a left eye swollen shut from injuries sustained in the fistfight and he’d been enraged by some perceived slights from Hankins. The judge cited the fact Collins had consumed alcohol, too.

“The combination of this rage and intoxication may have affected his ability to form the requisite intent,” Seibel wrote.

Carter Greiner, Collins’ attorney, said in a written statement that they believe the law was applied correctly and acknowledged the “right decision” wasn’t an “easy decision.”

“It was our position from the beginning, and belief that the evidence bore out during trial, that the child’s death was a horrific and tragic accident, that Mr. Collins didn’t intend to kill anyone and he certainly didn’t intend to hurt any child. Today, we feel vindicated,” Greiner wrote.

Traverse County Attorney Matt Franzese declined to comment in advance of the sentencing hearing that is scheduled for June 21.

Seibel also found Collins not guilty of intentional attempted murder, instead finding him guilty of second-degree assault.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535