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Judge halts file release on ex-senator's death

by John Moritz | August 27, 2020 at 3:32 a.m.
At left, then-Sen. Linda Collins is shown in a 2015 file photo. At right, Rebecca O’Donnell is escorted from the Randolph County Courthouse in July 2019 after her arraignment on charges. (Arkansas Democrat Gazette/John Moritz)

A Pulaski County circuit judge ordered two police agencies to stop releasing their investigation files concerning the slaying of former state Sen. Linda Collins, a ruling requested by the victim's family out of concerns their private information was included in the records.

Collins' two children and her ex-husband filed a lawsuit Monday seeking an injunction to halt the release of the files, which have been requested by several news outlets, including the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Circuit Judge Cathleen Compton signed the order for the injunction Tuesday evening, according to court records.

Compton's order stated that she will set a hearing on the matter within the next two weeks.

Collins' relatives also asked that no investigation files be released until they are reviewed by the judge in private to determine which materials not relevant to the investigation should be barred from disclosure.

An attorney for Collins' family did not return a request for comment on Wednesday.

Earlier this month, Collins' former friend and campaign aide Rebecca O'Donnell pleaded guilty to killing the former senator and received a 50-year prison sentence for that and other related crimes.

Investigators with the Arkansas State Police were able to gain access to Collins' phone and social media records in order to review her conversations with O'Donnell. Investigators also obtained footage from Collins' home security system that showed O'Donnell standing in the home last May, holding a knife with blood on her hands, according to several records that have already been released.

State police also requested access to the phones of Collins' children, Butch Smith and Heather Tate Williams, which were voluntarily turned over, as well as the personal computer of Collins' ex-husband, Phillip Smith, according to the family's lawsuit.

The Smiths and Tate Williams said in the lawsuit that they are concerned that personal records such as text messages, photographs and health records irrelevant to the investigation are included in police files, which number in the thousands of pages.

The family's attorneys wrote in a complaint that the Smiths and Tate Williams "worked side-by-side with [investigators] throughout the investigation of Linda Collins-Smith's brutal murder, and [the family] should not now be penalized for being open and forthright in aiding authorities."

Compton's order blocks both the state police and the Randolph County sheriff's office from releasing more files from the investigation.

Before the judge issued her order, both offices had been preparing the investigative files for release with redactions required by the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, representatives said in response to records requests by the Democrat-Gazette.

A spokeswoman with the state police last week said that the agency's investigative file contained nearly four terabytes of digital information.

Neither O'Donnell's attorney, Lee Short, nor the prosecutor assigned to the case, Robert Dittrich, said they had any objections to the family's request when asked about the lawsuit earlier this week.


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