RILEY COUNTY, Kan. (WIBW) -- The Manhattan man accused of beating an Army veteran to death in the Aggieville district in 2011 and raping a 57-year-old woman during her morning jog in 2010 has accepted a plea deal with the state.
Justin Taylor, 25, previously pleaded not guilty to Intentional 2nd Degree Murder. He is charged in the death of 31-year-old Kevin Cockrum, a former Army combat medic, who was brutally beaten in Manhattan's Aggieville district in the early morning hours of August 11, 2011 and died from severe head injuries the next day.
Taylor, a former Kansas State University student who was set to graduate this May, was arrested and charged in the case the week after Cockrum died and has been in the Riley County Jail as the case has progressed in court.
In late February 2012, the Riley County Police Department revealed that Taylor was also the suspect in another case, stemming from a sexual assault that had been under investigation since 2010. Taylor was already in the Riley County Jail, charged with Cockrum's murder when he was charged with the rape.
On Tuesday, April 3, 2012, Taylor accepted a plea agreement with the State of Kansas and entered a plea of no contest to the 2010 rape and a plea of no contest to the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter in connection with Kevin Cockrum’s death, therefore giving up his right to a trial.
Assistant Riley County Attorney Barry Disney laid out the state’s facts in both cases before Riley County District Court Judge Paul Miller, the Chief Judge for the 21st Judicial Circuit in Kansas.
Disney said that in the early morning hours of August 11, 2011, Kevin Cockrum and a female friend were walking near the intersection of 11th Street and Bluemont Avenue when Taylor drove past them and a passenger in Taylor’s car yelled an unkind remark at Cockrum’s friend. The passenger’s name was Levertis Horne, who was originally charged in an accomplice in the homicide but was released because police said they did not have enough evidence against him. Horne testified in earlier hearings that he went out drinking with Justin Taylor in Aggieville and they were on their way home when they encountered Kevin Cockrum.
According to Disney, after Horne shouted at Cockrum’s friend, Taylor drove past them and turned a corner into an alley when he saw that Cockrum was running after his car. Cockrum was upset over the remark Horne made to his female friend.
Once stopped in the alley, Taylor and Horne got out of the car and Cockrum ran over to Horne waving a large Maglite flashlight over his head that he had been carrying with him. The prosecution says Horne punched Cockrum in the face, knocking him unconscious. When Cockrum was passed out on the ground, Disney says Justin Taylor picked up the flashlight and delivered two hard blows to Cockrum’s face and head. Taylor and Horne went to drive away, leaving Cockrum on the pavement bleeding, but Disney told the judge they stopped and Taylor grabbed the flashlight and threw it into a storm drain a few blocks away.
Police responded to the scene and found Cockrum bleeding from the head and ears. He was alive but unresponsive and was airlifted to a Wichita hospital where he passed away. Disney says an autopsy showed that Kevin Cockrum died from blunt force trauma to the head and face which caused his brain to swell and then shut down, killing him. He says the doctor who performed the autopsy reported that Taylor’s blows with the flashlight contributed to the swelling of Cockrum’s brain and were a factor in his death.
As for the rape, Disney says in the early morning hours of June 25, 2010, the victim, a 57-year-old woman, was jogging west on Kimball Avenue near Denholm Drive in Manhattan when she was brutally raped. The woman was training for a marathon at the time and due to the heat of the summer, she was running very early because it was cooler. She had slowed to a walk when she was suddenly attacked from behind, shoved to the ground and forced to a nearby wooded area. Disney says the victim fought to get free and pleaded with her attacker to let her go, telling him that she was a grandmother. Disney told the judge that the man pushed her onto her stomach and raped and fondled her.
During the assault, Disney says the rapist squeezed the victim’s nostrils closed and covered her mouth from behind her, making it hard for her to breathe. When the suspect put his hand over the woman’s mouth, she bit his finger and Disney says at that point, she realized that an African American man was attacking her because he was still behind her and she had not seen his face.
When the rape was over, Disney says the man threw the victim’s underwear and shorts into the woods and told her to stay put as he ran to a nearby car and sped away. When officers responded, they found a used condom in the path the man took to his car and it was sent to the KBI for testing. DNA from an unknown man was found on the inside of the condom and was logged into the CODIS system, a national DNA database that gives law enforcement agencies the ability to search the database to assist in the identification of suspects in crimes.
At first, there was no match to the DNA in the rape case and over a year went by with no hits in the system but when Taylor was arrested and charged with Kevin Cockrum’s murder, his DNA was taken and entered into CODIS and local authorities were notified that it was a match to the DNA recovered in the rape case, Disney said.
A second sample confirmation test was done on Justin Taylor and Disney says the results were a match to the DNA from the condom.
When Justin Taylor told the court that he did not contest any of the facts that were presented, Judge Miller said he saw a factual basis for Taylor’s pleas and found him guilty in the cases, convicting him of rape and voluntary manslaughter.
Taylor’s sentencing has been set for Friday, May 18, 2012 at 9 AM in Riley County District Court. He is being held in the Riley County Jail.
Taylor’s attorney, Larry McRell, Chief Public Defender for the North Central Regional Public Defender's Office, had no comment following Tuesday’s hearing.
Barry Disney told reporters that a plea agreement had been in the works for the past few weeks: “The charge of Second Degree Intentional Murder was reduced down to Voluntary Manslaughter. The difference between Second Degree Murder and Voluntary Manslaughter is the element of a sudden quarrel and as you heard on the facts, there was a sudden argument that took place in this and we felt that it was appropriate to reduce the homicide charge down from Second Degree Intentional to an intentional murder that was done with a sudden quarrel. I do think that, looking at the facts of the case and putting everything together, that the plea is justified by the facts.”
When asked how much time Justin Taylor faces behind bars, Disney said: “I anticipate that with his criminal history, he’ll be looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty years.”
Disney said the fact that Taylor’s DNA was entered into CODIS right after his arrest in the homicide and was then quickly matched to the DNA rape recovered from the rape is the result of the Kansas Attorney General’s Office being dedicated to catching up with a backlog in the system.
“In this particular case, the evidence from the rape was there already in the system and as soon as the defendant was arrested for the homicide, the KBI was able to quickly get his DNA into CODIS so that we had a quick hit on him and that’s part of the efforts from the Attorney General’s Office to make up that back log and we saw some of the results of that here today. What had happened in years past is a person would be arrested and then their DNA from that arrest would not get put into CODIS for a year or six months or something like that but in this case you saw that almost immediately after Taylor was arrested, his DNA was taken and a profile was generated and it was put into CODIS very quickly,” he added.