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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — Rebecca O'Donnell is escorted through the Randolph County courthouse after a hearing on July 30. - Photo by John Moritz

POCAHONTAS -- The woman accused of killing former state Sen. Linda Collins pleaded innocent Wednesday to related charges filed by authorities who said she attempted to solicit murders -- which were never carried out -- while she was locked in jail.

Rebecca O'Donnell, 49, was charged earlier this month with two counts each of solicitation to commit capital murder and solicitation to tamper with physical evidence. Police said multiple women at the Jackson County jail accused O'Donnell of seeking their help to carry out the killings of Collins' ex-husband, Phil Smith, as well as officials connected to the Collins murder case.

Authorities also accused O'Donnell of seeking someone to "blow up" her car, which has been impounded by the police.

O'Donnell, wearing a white-and-gray jail jumpsuit, was in court with her attorneys Wednesday at the Randolph County Courthouse for a brief appearance on the new charges. Then for nearly two hours, she sat quietly at the defense table as attorneys and Circuit Judge John Fogleman considered other matters in the case.

The bulk of Wednesday's hearing was devoted to a motion filed by ABC News and the Arkansas Press Association to intervene in the case and secure access to investigative records that had been barred under the orders of previous judges assigned to the case. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is not a party to that effort.

Fogleman, who was assigned to the case in November, allowed ABC and the press association to intervene in the case, but denied most of their requests for access to new documents, including affidavits related to search warrants.

Fogleman said that while he would review other documents already submitted to the circuit clerk to see if any additional materials would be released to the public, he was concerned about being able to seat enough qualified jurors in a trial set for October.

"Interest in a case in a smaller county is greater," Fogleman said.

Soon after Collins' body was found outside her Pocahontas home last June, a judge assigned earlier to the case issued a blanket gag order and sealed all investigative documents that related to the arrest of O'Donnell, who was a friend and former campaign aide of the former senator.

While that order to seal was later amended to allow the release of some documents -- including a redacted affidavit stating that O'Donnell had been filmed removing security cameras from Collins' home on the last day Collins was seen alive -- the lack of information about the case had led to "wild conspiracies and innuendo" being circulated online, argued John Tull, an attorney for the media organizations.

O'Donnell's attorney, Lee Short, and the prosecutor assigned to the case, Robert Dittrich, argued against further amending the order to allow the release of more materials. Both said doing so would make it harder to conduct a fair trial.

While Fogleman said documents filed with the clerk would generally be made public, there was a "substantial probability" that O'Donnell's right to a fair trial would be hampered by extensive media coverage. He explained his belief that jurors would find it "easier to set aside what they believe if it's just rumors."

Last summer, O'Donnell pleaded innocent to the murder charge. Short has called the latest charges against her "outrageous" and the result of women at the Jackson County jail seeking lighter sentences by speaking to the police.

Short declined to offer additional comment Wednesday, citing the gag order that remains in effect.

While the charges in the murder case stem from Randolph County, the newest charges against O'Donnell were filed in Jackson County, where O'Donnell had been held in jail until recently being transferred to the Randolph County jail outside Pocahontas.

O'Donnell's first appearance on the latest charges was Wednesday in the Randolph County Courthouse, where Fogleman also considered other matters in the murder case. The trial in the murder case will take place in Randolph County. The trial on the solicitation case will take place in the Jackson County Courthouse in Newport.

A Section on 01/30/2020

Print Headline: Woman accused of killing former Arkansas lawmaker pleads innocent to seeking murders

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