A Kentucky man charged with murdering a gay man and stuffing his body into a suitcase to cover up the crime was convicted Monday night of a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter. Jurors deliberated nearly nine hours in the case of 23-year-old Joshua Cottrell. The jury also found Cottrell guilty of theft for unlawfully taking more than $300 and tampering with physical evidence. Cottrell stood as the verdict was read in Hardin County circuit court and showed no emotion.
Cottrell, who has a prior felony conviction for auto theft, faces up to 40 years in prison if he is found to be a persistent felony offender and if he receives the maximum sentence on each of the three felony counts and the sentences are served consecutively. "We're obviously going to be arguing for the maximum penalty," Commonwealth's attorney Chris Shaw told reporters afterward. He declined further comment other than to say, "The jury heard the case and made the determination."
The defense described Cottrell as a scared and panicked young man who defended himself against an unwanted sexual advance from Richie Phillips, 36, in Cottrell's Elizabethtown motel room. Fishermen found Phillips's body stuffed in a suitcase floating in Rough River Lake in nearby Breckinridge County on June 25, 2003, eight days after his family reported him missing. Phillips's family avoided reporters after the verdict.
Cottrell, who was 21 at the time of Phillips's death, told jurors last week that he killed Phillips but insisted he did so in self-defense. Defense attorney Scott Drabenstadt said that Cottrell was entitled under state law to fight back to protect himself from being raped or sodomized, using deadly force if necessary. "This kid is not a killer," Drabenstadt said in closing arguments. "This kid is not a robber. Yes, he did some very inappropriate things with the body.... But what set it all in motion, he was privileged to do. What set it in motion were the actions of a 36-year-old man." Drabenstadt declined to comment until after the sentencing phase, which begins Wednesday morning. Cottrell's family also declined to comment.
Shaw, the prosecutor, said in his closing statements that Cottrell harbored a "steaming anger" toward gay men and lured Phillips to his motel room to kill him. Shaw said Cottrell's "intent all along was to kill" and dispose of the body in a "cold, calculated" scheme to "get away with murder." In the days after Phillips's death, Cottrell was seen laughing, joking, and partying by some of his relatives, Shaw said, seeking to counter the defense's portrayal of Cottrell as scared and panicked.
Beth Wilson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said in a telephone interview after the verdict that she didn't want to second-guess the jury but added, "If the criminal justice system is being influenced by homophobia, then there's a problem." Gay rights activist Andrea Hildebran, also reached by phone, called it a "disappointing and disturbing verdict." "Bias against gay people has not only ended the life of Richie Phillips, it has done violence to the Kentucky system of justice," said Hildebran, executive director of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance.
Although Drabenstadt referred to Phillips as a "sexual predator" who preyed on young men, Shaw said there was no proof of sexual aggression by Phillips. Even if Phillips made an unwanted sexual advance in the motel room, Cottrell's response should have been to "walk away," Shaw said. Instead, Cottrell beat Phillips, put him in a headlock to choke him, and then choked him with a luggage strap, Shaw said. Drabenstadt said it was Phillips's actions in the motel room that "led to a chain of events that caused his death." The attorney said that Cottrell hit Phillips as hard as he could, as many times as he could, and would do it again if given the chance. "I agree with that, 100%," Shaw later said in his parting words to the jury before it started deliberating. The 12-member jury also had the option of considering reckless homicide as well as murder. Cottrell was accused of taking Phillips's truck, wallet, and cell phone after
the slaying. (AP)