WENATCHEE — Faced with potential jurors who already seemed convinced of his guilt, Christopher Scott Wilson on Wednesday pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the 2010 killing of 17-year-old Mackenzie Cowell.
Wilson, 31, was facing trial for first-degree murder in the death of his beauty-school classmate, whose violent loss shocked Wenatchee and sparked an eight-month police hunt for her killer. In a plea agreement, Wilson was sentenced to 171 months in prison, or just over 14 years.
With time served in jail since his October 2010 arrest and presumed good behavior in prison, he’s likely to be released in 10 years.
The plea was proposed by Wilson’s defense lawyers, led by John Henry Browne, and agreed to by Chelan County Prosecutor Gary Riesen.
“Sometimes it’s said that the right path is between the extremes,” Browne told Superior Court Judge John Bridges. “And I think that’s where we are.”
In a court hearing that began about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Wilson answered only “yes” or “no” to questions asked by Bridges. When the time came to answer “guilty” to charges of first-degree manslaughter, first-degree robbery for stealing Cowell’s cell phone and ring in the course of the killing, and second-degree assault for a prior attack on another woman, Wilson’s voice thickened.
Bridges read aloud the statement signed by Wilson, which in part admitted he “recklessly caused the death of Mackenzie Cowell by strangulation and by stabbing her with a knife.”
“Mr. Wilson, is that your statement?” Bridges asked.
“Yes,” Wilson answered promptly.
“And are those the things that you did?”
Wilson paused. “Yes,” he said finally.
The guilty plea does not yield anything like the 26 years Wilson might have faced if convicted under the standard sentencing range for murder. And it does not offer any motive Wilson might have had for killing Cowell Feb. 9, 2010 in his Wenatchee apartment, where police said her blood was found soaked into the carpet.
Mackenzie’s brother Colby Cowell, 23, got no answer when he asked Wilson, just before sentencing, why he killed Mackenzie.
“You’re man enough to take my sister away from me and my family,” Cowell said as Wilson faced the judge. “I just want you to be man enough to look me in the eyes and tell me why. Are you able to do that?”
Wilson did not turn to face the Cowell family, or make any other statement in court.
“I’ll make you a promise,” Colby continued. “Regardless of how long you’re in jail, or how long you live on this earth, you’re gonna burn forever.”
Asked about motive after the sentencing, Reid Cowell said Wilson “had a fascination with death and finally had an opportunity and the nerve to make it happen. I think he had an interest in what it would feel like.”
Sgt. John Kruse, chief of detectives with the Wenatchee Police Department, said after the sentencing that the motive was Wilson’s “fascination with death and stated desire to kill somebody.”
Those theories tied in with Chelan County Prosecutor Gary Riesen’s early motions in the case, which sought to introduce evidence Wilson was fascinated by violent death. Bridges denied those motions, which would have suppressed such testimony at trial.
And why Mackenzie Cowell?
“Maybe she was a person of opportunity,” said Robbin Wagg, the Douglas County Sheriff’s chief criminal deputy and director of the multi-agency Mackenzie Cowell Task Force that pursued the case.
Cowell, a Wenatchee High School student, disappeared Feb. 9, 2010, after leaving the Academy of Hair Design in downtown Wenatchee, where she and Wilson both studied. Her body was found four days later on the Columbia riverbank at Crescent Bar. She had been stabbed and strangled, and suffered blunt force trauma to the head. Her cell phone and a ring were missing, and have never been found.
Wilson, a fellow student at the academy, was arrested in October 2010. Police said they found Cowell’s blood staining the carpet and underpad of his apartment at 119 Okanogan St., and genetic material matching Cowell’s blood and Wilson’s paternal DNA type on a length of duct tape recovered near Cowell’s body.
Wagg and Kruse both said the task force’s investigation yielded evidence they believed could have resulted in a guilty verdict.
“We felt that a plea to murder would have been more appropriate,” Kruse said. “We had confidence in the evidence that we had and would have presented at trial, but we understand Gary’s job is a difficult one and the final decision is his, not ours.”
The plea agreement was reached by early afternoon, after attorneys spent the morning reading questionnaires from a second pool of jurors called to hear the case. Browne said at least 80 percent of jurors surveyed Monday and Tuesday indicated they believed Wilson was guilty, knew about evidence previously suppressed by the judge, believed the stain in Wilson’s apartment came from Cowell’s blood, or believed extensive coverage in The Wenatchee World “had painted a negative picture of Chris that could not be overcome.”
Many jurors believed all four factors, Browne said, and at least 50 stated they could not consider the case fairly.
“He read all those juror questionnaires and he got sick to his stomach last night,” Browne said of his client.
“I think it took him hearing the jurors, hearing what the jurors believed about him, to realize what we’d feared,” said associate defense attorney Emily Gause.
Browne and his team had long planned to seek a change of venue if juror prejudice proved too great. Last month they negotiated a plea agreement that would have sent Wilson to prison for 6 1/2 years for manslaughter in Cowell’s death, hoping to avoid a trial with a more severe result. Wilson ultimately rejected that deal at the last minute.
“I don’t think we could’ve gotten a fair trial here,” Browne said, “and I don’t think the judge would’ve moved it, so that limited our options.”
Riesen said by the time the plea was struck, a jury was “well on the way” to being seated in the case. Selection began Monday, dismissing 30 jurors out of a total 117, and the remaining candidates weren’t released from service until after Wilson entered his plea Wednesday.
As news of the agreement spread in the hallway of the Chelan County Law and Justice Building, 44 potential jurors awaiting interview had to wend their way through growing clusters of attorneys, police and news camera crews just to reach the bathrooms.
In court, Riesen praised the law enforcement efforts that led to Wilson’s arrest, but acknowledged the plea agreement is a compromise that “probably won’t be satisfactory to anyone.”
“This is a 17-year-old girl that loses her life in a manner that’s just sort of inexplicable,” Riesen said. “And as I expressed to her family, that’s not something that we can put a value on in the criminal justice system.”
Addressing Wilson in court, Reid Cowell said, “It’s never gonna be enough. Fifty years wouldn’t be enough. Because it wouldn’t bring her back.”
Cowell’s mother Wendy Cowell was not in court for the guilty plea and sentence. She left Riesen’s office in tears about 1:30 p.m. after learning the details of the agreement.
“I think if Christopher knew he wasn’t going to get a fair trial, he would’ve accepted the original plea,” Wilson’s mother Kathleen Zornes said. “But he didn’t, and I’m very disappointed.”
Zornes said lengthy coverage of the case in The Wenatchee World is “fully to blame” for tainting the jury pool.
“I don’t think it’s fair to Mackenzie’s family, because it is a compromise. And I would be very angry if the murderer of my daughter only got 10 years.”
Riesen said he does not anticipate charging any other suspects in Cowell’s death. Browne’s team had planned to offer evidence at trial that the murder might have been carried out by two convicted felons, Samuel S. Cuevas and Emmanuel Cerros Sanchez, based on testimony from a police informant in the Cowell case who was later disavowed by the task force.
“At present there’s no additional evidence involving her that’s come to light,” Riesen said. “So right now I would not anticipate filing those charges.”
Riesen said he would not have accepted an Alford plea from Wilson, in which a defendant agrees that the evidence is overwhelming while still maintaining his innocence. The plea deal forced Wilson to accept responsibility, and also held him accountable for an attack on another woman, Shawna Novak, who said Wilson choked her, then released her from his apartment in the months prior to Cowell’s death.
“I felt it was important to get that established on the record, that he did pose a threat to another female in this same age range,” Riesen said.
About 95 percent of all U.S. felony convictions are obtained through plea bargaining, in which a defendant pleads guilty to a charge less than the original. In March the U.S. Supreme Court validated plea bargaining as a constitutional right of defendants.
Bridges, due to retire from the Superior Court bench later this year, said the bias noted during juror selection indicated something about Chelan County citizens.
“I wanted the respective families to know that obviously, this community was concerned about what happened, and in some respects this community — our community — had concerns for these families — both families.
“… As I end my judicial career, I hope I don’t have to talk to a family either of a victim or the family of a defendant anymore, because … it’s almost impossible to find the words to express how we feel. Not only for you folks — how we feel for our community, how we feel for Mackenzie, and how we feel for Mr. Wilson. His life will never be the same. It’s just too bad for all of us. But I wanted you to know we’re all kind of in this together, actually. So Mr. Wilson’s going to go to prison.”
Wilson, in a charcoal suit and white shirt, was led from court about 4:17 p.m., after being shackled with his hands behind his back. Chelan County Regional Justice Center officials said he was transferred to state Department of Corrections custody Thursday morning.
World staff writer Dee Riggs contributed to this report.
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123