Fate of Atascadero man who bludgeoned wife to be decided Tuesday

Kenneth Cockrell
Kenneth Cockrell

Whether an Atascadero man accused of killing his wife in 2008 was insane or not at the time of the murder will be decided by a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge Tuesday.

Attorneys finished closing arguments Friday in the murder trial of Kenneth Leroy Cockrell Jr.

Judge Barry LaBarbera said he’ll issue his ruling on Cockrell’s sanity Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.

LaBarbera will also decide whether Cockrell will be sentenced to a state mental health facility or prison.

Cockrell has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity — meaning he’s admitted to the killing but says he didn’t know he was morally wrong at the time.

Defense attorney Guy Galambos argued that his client had no rational motive for bludgeoning Margaret “Peggy” Cockrell to death with a hammer in her sleep on March 23, 2008.

Cockrell, 68, told police he heard a voice commanding him to commit the killing as a sacrifice to God.

“This was irrational,” Galambos said. “He was hearing voices that he felt obligated to follow. He loved his wife. He was proud of her.”

But Deputy District Attorney Matt Kraut argued that killers often are reluctant to share why they committed their crimes. Maybe Cockrell had a reason for the bludgeoning that he didn’t tell anyone about, the prosecutor said.

Kraut also emphasized that Cockrell didn’t have any diagnosed history of mental health problems; he wasn’t taking medications or seeking psychological help.

“Is there ever a good reason to kill somebody?” Kraut asked. “Often only the killer knows and is rarely forthcoming. Kenneth Cockrell may have had a reason to kill her, but didn’t tell anybody.”

The Cockrells had been married about 20 years and had a loving relationship, Galambos said.

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.”

In the many interviews with police and psychologists, Cockrell never wavered from his account of hearing voices to kill his wife, though he had trouble understanding why they were delivering the message, Galambos said.

The law regarding legal insanity doesn’t require someone to distinguish between legal and moral wrongfulness, Galambos said.

Kraut said many of Cockrell’s behaviors appeared normal before and after the killing. Cockrell surrendered to police. He exhibited a calm demeanor without “ranting or raving,” Kraut said.

Kraut said Cockrell could have drawn from his religious moral base to avoid the killing during his internal struggle while hearing the voices — such as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”

The trial lasted two weeks and included the opinions of four doctors who said he was legally insane and one doctor who said he was legally sane.

Cockrell continues to be held without bail in County Jail.