While the first two days of Jeffrey Nixon’s trial were dedicated to verbal accounts of the alleged actions surrounding Wesley Collins’ murder, Wednesday’s testimony relied heavily on physical evidence, including autopsy photos and analyses of the weapons allegedly responsible for his death.
Nixon, 19, is accused of beating Kalispell resident Collins, 49, to death with hammers in order to steal his drugs and other possessions. He is being charged with deliberate homicide, robbery, tampering with physical evidence and burglary.
Robert Lake, 22, has already been convicted of deliberate homicide in connection with Collins’ death.
On July 13, the prosecution brought multiple specialists from the Montana Crime Lab – Forensic Science Division to testify about items found at multiple crime scenes.
In a round of graphic testimony, Dr. Walter Kemp explained what he found in Collins’ autopsy, shown to the jury in photos. There were lacerations all over Collins’ head, consistent with blunt force, Kemp said.
These lacerations were present on the back of his head in two spots; the left side of his head where the force had torn the cartilage of Collins’ ear; the right upper forehead in two places; and one to the right side of the head.
At least one of the blows forced pieces of Collins’ skull into his brain, Kemp said, and that injury had a shape consistent with the round end of a hammer.
There was also evidence of strangulation, Kemp noted, with a rope and a cord around Collins’ chin and the back of his neck, but that was not entirely conclusive.
The cause of death was recorded as homicidal violence including blunt force injuries to the head, Kemp said, and the manner of death was murder.
The jury also saw the hammers allegedly used in the murder. Lacey Van Grinsven, a serologist with the state crime lab, said she tested a red, mallet-like hammer and a yellow claw hammer for indications of blood.
Both hammers showed positive indications for blood; the red hammer had blood on both blunt ends of the head and the yellow hammer showed blood on the blunt and claw ends of the head. Van Grinsven also tested a cord found on Collins, which tests showed was saturated with blood.
There were also several sets of gloves with blood on them found during the investigation, in both Collins’ and Lake’s apartment directly below it, as well as in the truck used to transport and dump the body near Patrick Creek outside of Kalispell.
A forensic scientist from the state crime lab identified Collins’ DNA in the blood on the red hammer, as well as the yellow hammer. However, there was an indication of two blood contributors on the yellow hammer, but there was not enough to test.
Collins’ blood was also found on the tailgate of the truck, the windowsill of his apartment, the cord and on several gloves.
On one glove, the forensic scientist said there were two individuals who had contributed blood, with the major DNA profile belonging to Collins. Both Lake and Cody Naldrett, 28, the man who helped move Collins’ body, were excluded as possible contributors, but Nixon could not be excluded based on the DNA.
Lake was also a possible contributor on several other gloves, and Nixon’s DNA matched the major profile found on the inside cuff of one glove.
The handles of both hammers had multiple DNA contributors, but the scientist said Nixon could be excluded.
According to expert testimony, since everyone sheds DNA differently, these results do not mean Nixon did not touch the handles, but it also does not mean he did.
Deborah Hewitt, supervisor of the state crime lab’s latent fingerprint section and forensic scientist, said there were no prints on the hammer handles suitable for identification.
However, Nixon’s palm prints and fingerprints were found on a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and a bottle of carpet cleaner found in Collins’ apartment. Lake’s prints were also found on cleaning supplies in Collins’ apartment.
Other witnesses included two toxicologists from the state crime lab, one of who said Collins’ level of THC – the active ingredient in marijuana – was the highest she had ever seen in her lab tests.
The toxicologist, Sarah Braseth, said THC levels are higher with recent use.
Previous testimony in the trial indicated that Collins had been smoking pot with Lake and Nixon before he was killed.
Lake is currently serving a 110-year sentence for his guilty plea in the crime. Naldrett entered an Alford plea – meaning he does not admit guilt, but acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him – for his role in the cover up and is serving six months in jail with a 10-year suspended prison sentence.
Lake’s girlfriend, Karrolyn Robinson, is serving eight years in prison for her admitted role in covering up the murder.
Nixon’s trial is scheduled to run through Friday.
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