POCAHONTAS — Prosecutors announced Monday morning that they had filed capital murder and other charges against a local woman in the death of former state Sen. Linda Collins, though details remain scant about the homicide in this small town along the Black River.
Rebecca Lynn O'Donnell, 48, of Pocahontas was arrested Friday evening in the death of the ex-senator, according to authorities. An Arkansas State Police spokesman said at the time that no charges had been filed against her.
In addition to serving as a campaign aide to Collins during her unsuccessful re-election bid last year, O'Donnell was "considered a good friend" to the Republican lawmaker, said Ken Yang, a former spokesman for Collins.
Yang said that while he had not known O'Donnell well himself, he had not heard Collins mention any falling out in their relationship.
Prosecutors and police Monday continued to refuse to release any documents related to their investigation of Collins' death, citing a judicial order blocking such disclosures. That order was signed the day after Collins' body was found at her home on June 4. Authorities have not described a suspected motive for her death.
At her initial appearance at the Randolph County Courthouse on Monday morning, O'Donnell was charged with capital murder, abuse of a corpse and hindering physical evidence. No plea was entered during the initial appearance, which lasted about 15 minutes.
Circuit Judge Tom Garner ordered her held without bail at the request of prosecutors. Her plea and arraignment were scheduled for July 30.
O'Donnell was represented at her initial appearance by Gregg Parrish, the executive director of the Arkansas Public Defender Commission. Parrish, who said he met with O'Donnell over the weekend and again before court Monday, told Garner that a different public defender is likely to be appointed to represent O'Donnell.
During the brief court appearance, O'Donnell wore a striped black-and-gray jail uniform and a bullet-resistant vest. She did not make any statement as she stood with her hands shackled together in front of her. At one point, she needed help from Parrish to place glasses on her face so that she could read court documents that had been prepared for her.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Joe Grider similarly said little in court, other than explaining that another judge in the 3rd Judicial Circuit, Harold Erwin, on Friday evening found there was probable cause to issue a warrant for O'Donnell's arrest.
A member of Collins' family said outside the courtroom Monday that her relatives planned to remain quiet. Yang tweeted later that all future statements from the family would come through him.
Tim Loggains, who is identified in O'Donnell's social media accounts as her boyfriend, sat in the front row of the courtroom Monday. Loggains, the leader of a group that advocates for the permitless carry of handguns, had appeared several times with Collins at the state Capitol this spring to argue for legislation on gun rights.
Loggains declined to comment when approached by a reporter after the hearing.
Prosecutors and police have yet to reveal how they believe Collins died. Her body was discovered outside her home "in an advanced state of decomposition," according to a news release issued Monday by Henry Boyce, the chief prosecuting attorney for the 3rd Judicial Circuit, which covers four counties in northeast Arkansas.
It took investigators at the medical examiner's office two days to identify the body using dental records, according to the release.
The release from the prosecutor's office also cautioned members of the media to remain "patient" during the investigation, saying that news related to former senator's death had already become "distorted."
"Public interest in this case immediately began generating news reports and social media activity which became a distraction to law enforcement within hours of the discovery of the body," the release stated.
As a senator from District 19, Collins represented Pocahontas, a city of about 6,600, and portions of five counties from January 2015 to this January. She had previously served a single term in the state House, having first been elected as a Democrat before switching parties.
Neighbors of Collins' home on Arkansas 90 said Collins moved into the home with her then-husband, then-Circuit Judge Philip Smith, years ago. Some neighbors said Collins was not close with many of the people living in the small cluster of homes around hers.
Collins and Smith separated in 2016, filing for divorce a year later. During her time in the Legislature, Collins went by the surname Collins-Smith.
Yang, Collins' former spokesman, said he was with the former lawmaker's friends and family for a visitation on Friday night at the Sutton Free Will Baptist Church when they received the news of O'Donnell's arrest. Collins' funeral was Saturday.
Kevin Barnett, the church's senior pastor, said O'Donnell was not a member of the church, to his knowledge.
Because the Randolph County jail does not have space to house female inmates, O'Donnell was held in neighboring Lawrence County over the weekend, according to Randolph County jail administrator J.C. Vandergriff.
The Lawrence County jail log, viewed Monday by a reporter, said O'Donnell had been held for Randolph County and didn't specify charges.
The jail log at the Randolph County jail, also viewed Monday by a reporter, indicated that O'Donnell was booked around 5:22 p.m. Friday on capital murder and the other charges. However, the entry was listed after several other arrests that were written down over the course of the weekend.
A Randolph County jailer said he was not sure where O'Donnell was taken after her court appearance Monday. She was not returned to the Lawrence County jail, according to a deputy there.
"They have 60 days from her being taken into custody to file charges in circuit court," Pulaski County prosecutor Larry Jegley said when asked by a reporter to explain the procedure for charging a defendant.
Erwin is the judge who signed off on the order blocking the release of major material in the investigation, including law enforcement and medical reports.
Grider had cited "prejudicial pretrial publicity" in his request seeking those records be made private. He argued it would hinder the court's ability to find a fair jury.
Jegley said it's not uncommon for prosecutors and defense attorneys to seek an order restricting the release of information.
"It's to preserve the integrity of the testimony and so the defense can get a good, fair hearing," he said.
Bill James, a defense attorney, said defense attorneys can still review those documents but aren't allowed to publicly release information.
"There's no opportunity to put any kind of spin," James said. "But it's more political than necessary for justice."
But both agreed such orders present challenges for both prosecutors and defense attorneys when inaccurate information surfaces and they can't refute it outside of court.
A Section on 06/18/2019
Print Headline: Campaign aide charged with capital murder in slaying of former Arkansas senator