Expert describes mental state of Atascadero man accused of bludgeoning wife with hammer

Kenneth Leroy Cockrell
Kenneth Leroy Cockrell

A psychologist testified Wednesday that an Atascadero man, who is accused of bludgeoning his wife to death with a hammer in 2008, believed he was sacrificing her to perform God’s will.

The trial that began this week in San Luis Obispo Superior Court is to determine whether 68-year-old Kenneth Cockrell was sane when he killed his wife, 69-year-old Margaret “Peggy” Cockrell.

The defendant has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The trial will determine whether he is sent to state prison or a mental health facility.

His attorney, Guy Galambos, is admitting his client’s responsibility for the killing on March 23, 2008. But he’s arguing that Cockrell didn’t know he was morally wrong when he carried out the crime.

Court-appointed psychologist Emily Wisniewski testified that she believed Cockrell didn’t know he was morally wrong to kill his wife because he was delusional and believed he was doing what God wanted.

“He knew he was legally wrong because he turned himself in to police,” Wisniewski said. “But he also didn’t know he was morally wrong.”

Wisniewski said her review of statements that Cockrell made to authorities revealed that he had read a Bible before going to his garage for a hammer that he used to kill his wife, who was sleeping at the time.

He’d heard a female voice in his head telling him to kill his spouse, which was part of God’s plan, according to statements Cockrell made.

Atascadero Police Department Officer Nick Coughlin testified that Cockrell met with him at the station on the day of the killing and drew a map of his home, detailing the rooms, before admitting he killed his wife.

Cockrell’s body was shaking slightly as they spoke in an interview room, Coughlin testified.Wisniewski is one of two doctors appointed by Judge Barry LaBarbera to determine Cockrell’s sanity.

Her examination of the defendant led to her conclusion that he was “psychotic” at the time of the killings. Dr. Brandi Matthews is expected to testify this week about her findings.

Multiple doctors have examined Cockrell with varying opinions about his mental state, including Dr. Kris Mohandie, who believes Cockrell had moral awareness.

Prosecutor Matt Kraut, in his cross-examination, pointed to Cockrell’s feelings of guilt after the crime about killing his wife and noted that Cockrell had said he’d previously argued against the voices in his head against killing his wife.

Kraut also asked Wisniewski about Cockrell’s belief that a gay relative of the couple was sinful and his feelings about his wife’s acceptance of the relative, implying a possible motive for the killing.

Wisniewski said that she believed Cockrell loved his wife and that his feelings of guilt have come since he has been medicated and stabilized mentally.

Doctors who examined Cockrell have cited possible mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, major depression and dementia as his possible illnesses.