Originally created 05/23/00

Couple faces trial in slaying



AIKEN - Victoria Cowart was sick from dinner, causing the toddler to vomit. Then she urinated at the kitchen table and again on a chair in the living room.

Within a few hours, the 15-month-old girl was dead.

Prosecutors say the girl's mother or the mother's live-in boyfriend delivered a powerful blow to the girl's head that night, ending Victoria's short life.

In General Sessions court this week, attorneys will wrangle over the key question: Who struck the fatal blow?

Rebecca Christine Cowart, 25, and Michael James Smith, 32, are both charged with homicide by child abuse, facing 20 years to life in prison.

Neither of them has taken responsibility for the blow, and separate defense attorneys are expected to argue that their client is innocent. Second Circuit Solicitor Barbara Morgan will ask a jury in opening statements today to hold both accountable for the April 2, 1999, homicide.

In pretrial motions Monday, Circuit Judge Thomas Cooper Jr. ruled that the solicitor can present Ms. Cowart's statements that her boyfriend was abusive and once caused her to miscarry. The woman allegedly told investigators that Mr. Smith frequently turned his temper to Victoria.

"She said he had once tied the child up to a rocking horse," sheriff's Investigator Stuart Graybill testified Monday. "She said he had struck the child, causing bruises."

In the days after her daughter's death, she also told authorities that her daughter bruised easily from a blood disorder and that she suffered injuries from rough play with a family dog, the investigator said.

A jury was not present during the pretrial hearing, but they will be allowed to hear the testimony.

Authorities say Ms. Cowart and Mr. Smith had been living at Castlewood Mobile Home Park off U.S. Highway 1 when they called 911 late on a Friday night because Victoria was blue in the face. Aiken County Emergency Medical Services officials arrived and found the girl unconscious and lying on the floor in the den.

Victoria died later at Aiken Regional Medical Centers.

An autopsy the next day showed indications the girl suffered a blow to the head. Victoria also had marks on her stomach and the back of her mouth.

The couple was arrested later that day.

In court Monday, Ms. Cowart and Mr. Smith sat at separate tables with their defense attorneys. She is represented by Aiken attorney Kent Landry; his lawyer is Deputy Public Defender Wallis Alves. Both have family members attending the trial.

Ms. Cowart occasionally dabbed tears from her eyes as Investigator Graybeal talked about Victoria's death.

But her attorney was more concerned about keeping the mother's statements to police away from the jury. Mr. Landry said Ms. Cowart wasn't read her Miranda rights in one case and she had asked for an attorney in another.

Judge Cooper ruled that her statements were made voluntarily and she waived her rights to an attorney when she agreed to take a polygraph test. Police said she failed the polygraph test and then told investigators about her boyfriend's abusive nature.

Judge Cooper ruled in a separate hearing Friday that the former couple will have to stand trial together, declining a motion by Mr. Landry to separate the cases. The attorney had argued that a jury could be biased against his client.

Ms. Morgan said both are responsible because they were both present when Victoria suffered the injuries that ended her life. There is also evidence the girl suffered continuing episodes of abuse, including a swollen mouth that made it impossible to chew solid foods.

Today, the judge will continue to hear motions outside of the jury's presence regarding statements made by Mr. Smith. A judge will rule on their admissibility before seating a jury and beginning opening statements.

The trial is expected to last all week.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.