Originally created 05/24/00

Suspect pleads guilty before trial opens



AIKEN -- Ending months of denial, Rebecca Christine Cowart bowed out of her trial on opening day Tuesday, taking responsibility for abusing and ultimately killing her 15-month-old daughter last year.

Minutes before a jury heard opening statements in the case against her and former boyfriend Michael Smith, Ms. Cowart pleaded guilty to homicide by child abuse. She will be sentenced once the trial of Mr. Smith is over, and she could be called as a witness against him.

But the mother's absence as a co-defendant leaves one question for the jury panel: What role did her former live-in boyfriend play in the brutal beating death of Victoria Cowart?

Prosecutors are expected to present evidence that Mr. Smith was well aware of the unexplained bruises on the girl's body and could have taken action to stop the abuse.

Under South Carolina law, a person can be held responsible for homicide by child abuse if he either causes the death or neglects the child "under circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to human life." The charge brings a possible sentence of 20 years to life imprisonment.

In opening statements, Deputy Public Defender Wallis Alves jumped on Ms. Cowart's sudden guilty plea as a reason to acquit Mr. Smith.

"She did that because she knows she's guilty, and she knows she can't fool you," Ms. Alves said. "Mr. Smith did nothing wrong. He is not the person who is responsible. .ƒ.ƒ. He saw the bruises on Victoria and asked the mother about it."

Second Circuit Solicitor Barbara Morgan focused her opening remarks on the girl, telling jurors they would see Victoria "in her beauty and in her horror."

"This is the kind of child who, if you saw her, you could not help but smile," Ms. Morgan said. "(But) something happened to a baby that ain't supposed to happen."

And in remarks that brought many in the courtroom to tears - including Ms. Cowart's attorney, Kent Landry - the solicitor described evidence of abuse that was apparent when paramedics responded to a 911 call at 11 p.m. April 2, 1999.

"You're going to hear that there were bruises to the abdomen. There were bruises to the chest. There were bruises to the elbow. There were bruises to the knee. There were bruises to the buttocks. And there were bruises to the back," Ms. Morgan said.

Witnesses described Mr. Smith as obviously distraught over Victoria's condition on the night of her death.

When paramedic Patricia Grant arrived at the couple's home at Castlewood Mobile Home Park off U.S. Highway 1, Mr. Smith came running out of the trailer.

"His hands were moving around, and he seemed very frantic and upset," Ms. Grant said.

While Mr. Smith rode in the ambulance that took the girl's lifeless body to Aiken Regional Medical Centers, Ms. Cowart insisted on returning to the trailer to get her cigarettes, Ms. Grant testified. Ms. Cowart drove separately and met them at the hospital.

Once told of Victoria's death, Mr. Smith became uncontrollable, sheriff's Investigator Stuart Graybeal said.

"Mr. Smith jumped up and began crying. At one point, he fell on the floor. He did not appear to be in control of himself at the time," Investigator Graybeal said.

Ms. Cowart sat quietly in an emergency room chair and cried.

"She was not as outwardly emotional as Mr. Smith was," the investigator said.

Ms. Cowart, 25, and Mr. Smith, 32, were arrested April 3, 1999, after an autopsy by Medical Examiner Joel Sexton revealed the girl was a victim of repeated child abuse and died from a fatal blow to the head. Dr. Sexton testified Tuesday that there were clear signs of knuckle marks on the girl's head, indicating that she had been hit more than once by a fist.

Victoria died from swelling to the brain caused by a severe blow to the head, he said.

In the girl's stomach, Dr. Sexton found whole pieces of potato, corn and meat, suggesting the girl's mouth was too swollen for her to chew her dinner.

The trial resumes today and is expected to last all week.

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