Atascadero man was sane when he beat wife with hammer, judge rules

Judge’s decision is at odds with testimony of four doctors in the homicide trial

nwilson@thetribunenews.comFebruary 21, 2012 

Kenneth Cockrell

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

A judge found on Tuesday that a 68-year-old Atascadero man was legally sane when he killed his wife four years ago, despite the testimony of four doctors who concluded that he was insane at the time.

In resolving a two-week trial that ended Friday, Judge Barry LaBarbera ruled in San Luis Obispo Superior Court that Kenneth Leroy Cockrell Jr. had the ability to distinguish right from wrong.

“We have evidence from a lot of people that he was very functional,” LaBarbera said, referring to Cockrell’s state of mind before the killing.

Cockrell killed his wife, Margaret “Peggy” Cockrell, on March 23, 2008, Easter Sunday, at their home in Atascadero, beating her to death with a hammer as she napped.

Cockrell’s sentencing is scheduled for March 27. He is expected to receive 31 years to life in state prison. Cockrell heard voices telling him to kill his wife as a sacrifice to God, according to two court-appointed doctors.

LaBarbera’s decision was at odds with conclusions presented by four of five doctors who evaluated Cockrell and deemed him legally insane.

One psychologist, Carolyn Murphy, was assigned to consider Cockrell’s competency to stand trial and offered her opinion of his insanity as an aside.

But LaBarbera said Cockrell hadn’t previously exhibited a history of psychosis; the insanity argument relied on Cockrell’s statements to doctors after the incident.

The judge also noted that Cockrell told doctors he had considered the commandment “thou shalt not kill” before committing the murder, implying that he knew the difference between right and wrong at the time. The defense argued that Cockrell’s supreme belief in God overrode the commandment.

LaBarbera said a motive may never be known.

Cockrell’s attorney, Guy Galambos, had the burden of proving that Cockrell was more likely than not insane when he killed his wife. Under an insanity ruling, Cockrell would have been committed to a mental health institution.

“I’m disappointed by the ruling,” Galambos said. “I feel that the court didn’t give enough weight to the opinions of the doctors. (Cockrell) was delusional and thought he was doing the right thing. The effect of the ruling is that it further compounds a horrible tragedy.”

The couple had a loving relationship without any violence before to the killing, according to trial testimony. Galambos argued that his client — a Pentecostal Christian — wasn’t having a reasonable internal debate before killing his wife “because he was debating with voices that aren’t real.”

But LaBarbera pointed to statements Cockrell made to psychologists that he’d previously “laughed off” suggestions by the voices to kill his wife. And the judge said inferences were made by the doctors about whether the voices were directed by God.

Galambos said his client told doctors that the voices were directed by “heaven,” which he equates to God. In an initial police interview, Cockrell, who turned himself in, didn’t mention hearing voices. But eight days after the incident, he told a doctor that he had heard voices.

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