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Graphic images at play in murder trial

Sandy man is on trial for his life, accused of starving and beating his daughter, 3, to death


Clackamas County Deputy District Attorney Christine Landers didn’t pull any punches last week when she talked to the jury in her opening statements.

An audible gasp was heard in parts of the courtroom when she projected on a large TV screen a medical examiner’s autopsy photo of a 3-year-old emaciated girl, with bruises and lacerations all over her body.

Donald Lee CockrellThe six-week trial of Donald Lee Cockrell began Wednesday, Jan. 30. He is accused of aggravated murder and criminal mistreatment in the January 2010 death of his 3-year-old daughter, Alexis M. Pounder.

In Judge Susie L. Norby’s Clackamas County Circuit Court, Landers projected photos for the jury, showing some of the injuries to Alexis Pounder and her sister Kara Pounder that she alleges is physical abuse from Cockrell and his former fiancé, Michelle N. Smith, who already has admitted to being responsible for Alexis’ death.

Michelle Nicole SmithIn response to Smith’s expected testimony against her former fiancé, Landers said, Smith will receive a 30-year sentence, without the possibility of parole.

Landers also showed photos of both of Cockrell’s daughters — photos that were taken during doctor’s visits prior to Alexis’ death.

During the showing of those photos and Landers’ graphic description of the type of physical abuse she alleges Cockrell was responsible for, he sat between his two attorneys facing forward — not moving and not looking directly at the photos.

But when Landers showed a photo of Alexis’ body lying on the medical examiner’s autopsy table, Cockrell looked and began crying, holding his head with his left hand. Tears were flowing, dripping into his lap, before defense attorney Jenny Cooke could give Cockrell a tissue to wipe his face and dry his eyes.

Cooke also didn’t pull any punches, but it took her less than an hour to present her case — which centers on Smith, whom she blames for the injuries and death of the older Pounder girl.

Cooke predicted that the jury would find her client not guilty after she made a few statements that portrayed Smith as a pathological liar.

Cooke predicted that Smith would lie to the jury during her testimony, just as she had been doing since she was 18, when she became addicted to prescription painkillers and had to lie to doctors to get prescriptions.

Landers, however, accuses Cockrell of beating Alexis and withholding food from her in response to the times when she would wet or soil her bed or her night clothing. Landers said the girl was forced to sleep on the floor to prevent wetting the bed. She was punished for that soiling, Landers said, and Smith not only withheld food, but also made her run.

Withholding food had its effect, the deputy D.A. said, and the jury saw it graphically in the photos showing the girl’s emaciated body.

At the time of her death, she weighed 21 pounds, which was less than she weighed at her 18-month checkup.

An autopsy performed by Dr. Larry Lewman of the Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office revealed the little girl died of “physical and nutritional child abuse.” A court document identified the reason for death as blunt force trauma and starvation.

Alexis’ younger sister, Kara, had similar signs of abuse and weight loss, but she had not been starved as much as Alexis, Landers said. Kara had a special place to sleep at night: in a narrow space on the floor between a couch and the wall.

Cooke countered in her opening statement that the little girl didn’t die of blunt force trauma, neglect or starvation. She died of pneumonia, Cooke told the jury. Alexis had a cold that turned into the pneumonia that Lewman noticed was present in the girl’s lifeless body.

Landers admitted that the pneumonia was present, listing the conditions that Lewman had discovered, including loss of hair, bloodshot (hemorrhaging) eyes, bronchial pneumonia, an infection from e-coli bacteria, dehydration, sunken eyes, weight below the bottom line on a 40-month growth chart, emaciation and the fact there was no food at all in any part of her gastro-intestinal tract.

Two days before the girl died, Smith had left Alexis at home alone as punishment, taking her three children and Kara when she drove from her parent’s home on Cottontail Lane near Sandy, where they were living, to pick up Cockrell at his workplace in Beaverton. Cockrell had been using public transportation to travel to the job he had acquired at the end of 2009, but that day he chose not to ride MAX and SAM.

Smith had left Alexis at home alone as punishment, Landers said, because the little girl was incontinent with diarrhea, had dry heaves, and she was acting out.

The next day, Cockrell used public transportation, but there was a delay in his arrival back in Sandy.

When Cockrell arrived in Sandy, Smith and the four children met him and they went to a fast-food restaurant in Sandy. They didn’t return home until about 10 p.m., finding Alexis sleeping on the floor.

That was the night she died. Cooke alleges that night one of Smith’s children was playing around Alexis, who was still on the floor face down, and the other child was jumping on Alexis’ head.

The child’s jumping, Cooke said, was responsible for many of the injuries to Alexis’ head and face.

Because Cockrell was away from the home from 5 a.m. to at least 7 p.m. every day, Cooke says Smith was providing almost all of the care for Alexis. For that reason, Cooke said, she was responsible for the child’s weakened condition, which contributed to her eventual death.

Cooke will bring in expert witnesses who will describe how this scenario could have happened. She will paint a picture of Smith as addicted to prescription medicine for about 10 years.

In the five months prior to the child’s death, Cooke said, Smith visited 15 doctors at five hospitals and ingested about 2,000 pain pills.

“Michelle Smith knew how to con doctors into giving her pills,” Cooke told the jury.

“Smith conned everyone, and she will con you (from the witness stand).”

Landers concluded her opening statement by saying that both Smith and Cockrell were “indifferent” to Alexis’ needs, and had very little contact with her for about 1-1/2 days prior to her death.

“She was dehumanized,” Landers said, “and punished for things she couldn’t control.”

But Cooke characterized her client as a victim of Michelle Smith’s lies. Donald Cockrell is a father who has lost his child and three years of his life (in jail from 2010 to 2013) because Michelle Smith has lied.

“He has suffered enough,” she said, suggesting that the jury should find him not guilty.

The jury was told that none of the attorneys’ statements are evidence and not to be considered when deciding guilt or innocence.

The prosecution is bringing witnesses to the stand daily, Tuesday through Friday, with the defense expected to begin its case sometime next week.

The jury may get its instructions from Norby at the end of February or early in March. If the verdict is guilty on all charges, another two weeks would be needed for both sides to present their cases for the appropriate sentence.

If he is found guilty on lesser charges, the jury would determine a sentence based on the judge’s instructions.

If is found not guilty on all charges, as Cooke suggested, he would walk away a free man.