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Cockrell guilty of murder by abuse

Sandy man is convicted of murder of 3-year-old daughter, criminal mistreatment of both daughters


Donald Lee Cockrell After a trial that took more than a month, the jury took more than a week to convict Donald Lee Cockrell of murder by abuse of his 3-year-old daughter, Alexis M. Pounder.

Deputy District Attorney Christine Landers had charged Cockrell with aggravated murder, which carries the death penalty or at least life without a chance for parole.

But the jury, by choosing murder by abuse, reduced the possible sentence to a minimum of 25 years, with a few years possibly added for criminal mistreatment of the deceased girl as well as her sister, Kara, who did not die from her mistreatment.

‘Measure of justice’

“We are very happy with the verdict,” Landers said. “We feel that it represents a measure of justice for Alexis, the little girl who was murdered.”

Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Susie L. Norby will pronounce the sentence for Cockrell later this month.

Cockrell’s former fiancee, Michelle N. Smith, also will receive her sentence in the near future, which will be a minimum of 30 years, according to the agreement she signed admitting to the murder and agreeing to testify against Cockrell.

Smith admitted guilt in the murder of Alexis Pounder, but the plea agreement prevented Landers from seeking the death penalty in Smith’s case.

No winners

The little girls’ mother, Heather Pounder, appeared relieved in court last week when the verdict was read.

The more than three years since the 3-year-old’s death has been stressful for the mother, Landers said.

“Heather lost her daughter,” Landers said, “and this has been a long road for her. But I think she’s satisfied with the result. She’s not happy about it because her daughter is still dead, but I think she feels that (Cockrell) was forced to take responsibility for something that he has never taken responsibility for.”

Testimony came from a long list of doctors, social workers, detectives and relatives. And that testimony, at times, was very graphic.

“It’s a very sad case,” Landers said. “It’s fair to say that no one associated with this case walks away without being changed by what they saw.”

Next: appeal

Cockrell’s defense team included Jenny Cooke and Robert Huggins Jr., who both said the jury’s verdict was wrong.

Cooke was somewhat relieved that the jury did not uphold the aggravated murder charges because a penalty-phase trial was avoided.

“The jury did not get it right,” Cooke said. “But that was because the judge didn’t give the jury instructions right.”

After Judge Norby pronounces a sentence, scheduled for March 15, Cooke plans to begin the appeal process. Her appeal will be based on the idea that the judge’s instructions to the jury were incorrect.

During the trial, the defense team placed the blame for the young girl’s death on Smith, citing the fact that Cockrell worked outside home and sometimes didn’t arrive at home until late at night. That made Smith the primary caregiver for Cockrell’s two children as well as Smith’s three kids.

Only Cockrell’s girls showed signs of abuse.

Cooke was asked why the jury essentially ignored so much of the testimony that showed Smith to be a drug addict, a liar and the person who punished the deceased girl for things over which she had no control.

Cooke would not be very specific, but she did say the reason all of that testimony didn’t have much effect on the verdict “had to do with the jury’s instructions.”

“We will appeal,” she said, “and we will see what happens.”

After Judge Norby gives Cockrell his sentence, Cooke will take the case to the Oregon Court of Appeals. If not satisfied there, she said she could go to the Oregon Supreme Court.

Landers said standard procedure is that the Department of Justice would represent the state at the appeals court.