RILEY COUNTY, Kan. (WIBW) -- A Manhattan man will spend nearly 18 years in prison for raping a woman during her morning jog and for beating a local veteran to death in the Aggieville district.
Justin Taylor, 25, was sentenced Friday, May 18, 2012 in Riley County District Court by Judge Paul Miller, Chief Judge of the 21st Judicial Circuit.
Taylor, a former Kansas State University student who was set to graduate this May, was originally charged with the murder of 31-year-old Kevin Cockrum.
Cockrum, a former Army combat medic, was brutally beaten in an alleyway in Aggieville in the early morning hours of August 11, 2011 and died from severe head injuries the next day. Taylor 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 of a 57-year-old woman.
Last month, Taylor accepted a plea deal with the state, pleading 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 handled both cases.
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 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.
During Friday’s sentencing hearing, Judge Miller heard a statement from Kevin Cockrum’s girlfriend, Lauren Williams.
Williams said that Cockrum was an great person and a courageous man who risked his life to help save other soldiers in combat and that the world lost an incredible man when he was killed. She said that she hoped something would be learned from his death.
Judge Miller also heard from Elizabeth Parker, the woman who was raped. WIBW typically protects the identities of victims of sexual assault but Parker gave her consent to an interview, saying she wanted to speak out about what happened to her in the hopes that it would give hope and courage to other victims of sexual violence.
In the courtroom, she told Taylor that he changed her life forever when he stalked her during her jog and brutally attacked her in the darkest area he could find, knocking her mace out of her hand. She said she thought she was going to die and fought for her life as she begged Taylor to stop. Parker says she’s lived in Manhattan all her life and had a false sense of security. Originally, she thought her attacker was someone “transient” passing through town after the Country Stampede Concert. She called Taylor a “homegrown monster” and says while she’s gotten over the beating, she’s become a “prisoner of fear” and her pain, suffering and mental anguish have had an impact on everyone in her life.
Then it was Justin Taylor’s turn to address Parker and her family along with Kevin Cockrum’s loved ones. Taylor said he is “very shamed and sincerely, sincerely sorry” for the hurt and pain that he’s caused and that he accepts full responsibility for his actions, which were unplanned and inexcusable. He says his conscience will condemn him every day for the rest of his life. As his mother and father looked on, he went on to say that he prays that the victims and their families have the strength to overcome the consequences of his actions which have affected so many people and that one day, they might be able to forgive him.
Judge Miller gave Taylor credit for his statement and for pleading to the charges in both cases and not making the victims and their families go through a prolonged trial. But he denied the request of Taylor’s parents to make his sentences concurrent to one another, sentencing him to 155 months for the rape and 59 months for voluntary manslaughter. He said the consecutive sentences were appropriate because they represent two separate punishments for two separate crimes.
Taylor’s attorney Larry McRell, Chief Public Defender for the North Central Regional Public Defender's Office, said Taylor could have gone to trial but tried to handle things morally and respectfully by entering into negotiations with the state.
“Justin spoke from his heart and his conscience today in hoping to help alleviate the pain and suffering of the families involved in this case,” McRell told 13 News after the hearing.
When he is released from prison, Taylor must register as a violent offender for 15 years and as a sexual offender for 25 years.
"I’m finally closing a chapter and it’s not just myself that’s moving on but my whole family and all of my friends and everybody who is important to me and everybody who supported me through almost the last two years....Not very many people know my story. I kept it quiet because I did feel a degree of embarrassment. My therapist has helped me realize that I didn’t do anything wrong and I was the victim. If this can help anybody else come forward and step forward, it’s a scary process and it’s a long process but hopefully, none of my daughters or granddaughters ever have to go through something like this and if I can keep that from happening, that’s the important thing," Elizabeth Parker told reporters after the sentencing.
She says she wants to help improve the DNA process in the state of Kansas and making sure that “people pay for what they do."
Lauren Williams, Kevin Cockrum's girlfriend, also spoke to members of the media after Friday's proceedings.
"I just hope that he learns his lesson in prison for several years. Kevin was a very caring person, he would give you the shirt off his back," she said.
"Obviously, hearing from the victims, there's limitations on what any time behind bars can do and that it's never really going to adequately cover the harm that was done but it is the agreement that the parties entered into, it is the standard agreement for the crimes called for by the Kansas legislature. I'm pleased that the judge ran consecutive sentences," Riley County Assistant Attorney Barry Disney said.