Mother testifies in trial of man accused of killing 14-month-old
WHEATON, Minn. - It should have been a momentous day for Sherry Hankins - she was moving to a house with her new husband and had just seen her daughter take her first confident steps.
But those first steps would also be some of the 14-month-old girl's last ones.
Later on the night of Sept. 3, 2009, Hankins' daughter was dying in her arms, crying a whimper so faint a witness described it as the sound of a mewing kitten.
"As a mom, you know the hurt cry, the really hurt cry," Hankins said Tuesday in the Traverse County Courthouse in Wheaton. "She was crying to let me know she was still there."
Hankins was testifying in the trial for David Collins, the man accused of murder in the death of her daughter, Aundrea Brownlow.
Authorities say Collins resisted his pastor's request that he give his washer and dryer to Claude and Sherry Hankins for their new home, first pushing back with tough talk and then with a fistfight right outside the church they all attended, Thy Kingdom Come.
Collins left with a black eye and went to the home of Darryl Kennedy, who also testified on Tuesday. Kennedy was originally charged with murder as well, but on Dec. 30, he pleaded guilty to charges of manslaughter and assault and was sentenced to more than six years in prison.
"Look what they did to me!" Kennedy recalled Collins saying. "Man, give me that bat."
Collins had previously mentioned taking Kennedy's wooden baseball bat, after he and Claude had first butted heads. He was upset, Kennedy said, because he felt like being told to give up the washer and dryer was a manipulation by the church's founder, the Rev. Danny Barnes, an ex-pimp who became a preacher.
Kennedy said that's how the ministry was run by Barnes, who's now serving an 11½-year prison term on assault, kidnapping and burglary charges connected to an incident he says was a drug intervention.
"Whatever he gave you, he'd take it back," he said. "He did that as a form of control over anybody."
Collins returned to the church, witnesses say, and began swinging the bat at Claude Hankins, who was blocking the overhead blows with a chair. An expert from the state crime lab later testified that at least eight separate dents were on the bat, which also had a long crack in it.
Sherry, who had been married to Claude less than three weeks, said she'd never seen that sort of fear and hopelessness on her husband's face.
She was also scared by the look on Collins' face.
"He was completely enraged. Completely," Hankins said.
She picked up another chair, she testified, running at Collins and poking him with it to try to get him to stop, at one point threatening to kill him.
"Then the bat came down and his face completely changed," Sherry Hankins said.
At some point, authorities believe the bat struck the girl in the head. The medical examiner who testified on Monday, the first day of the trial, determined the fatal injury was consistent with that caused by a bat.
Jennifer Zamilpa, the church member who was the first to see Brownlow was injured, yelled out to get her mother's attention, Zamilpa said Tuesday. They drove off to take the girl to the hospital, her head beginning to show swelling and red marks.
When Brownlow arrived at MeritCare Hospital in Fargo with a traumatic head injury, Dr. Chad Justesen testified Tuesday, he didn't think she was going to make it. The neurosurgeon attempted surgery anyway because of her young age, but she died in the operating room.
Justesen said that based on the extent of the brain injury, he believes an adult would have also died from a blow of similar force.
"But that's just my opinion," he said during cross-examination.
The prosecution rested its case Tuesday afternoon, and the trial is expected to end today after the testimony of the defense witnesses and closing arguments. Collins elected to have the trial decided by Judge Gerald Seibel instead of a jury.
In a brief opening statement on Monday, defense attorney Carter Greiner argued there will be enough evidence to cast reasonable doubt on the notion that Collins meant to kill Claude Hankins or Brownlow.
In addition to two charges of second-degree murder, which carries a maximum penalty of 40 years if convicted, Collins faces two attempted murder charges and one count of assault.