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Imprisoned man maintains innocence in Wenatchee girl's killing

Christopher Wilson is seen in court on Wednesday, May 23, 2012. Image courtesy of The Wenatchee World.
Christopher Wilson is seen in court on Wednesday, May 23, 2012. Image courtesy of The Wenatchee World.
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CLALLAM BAY, Wash. (AP) - Christopher Scott Wilson looks down at his skin and contemplates what to do about the murderer staring back at him.

Hannibal Lecter glowers from his forearm, restrained by a faceguard. The uncolored tattoo is 10 years old, inked there while Wilson lived for a time with his grandparents in Palm Desert, Calif.

That tattoo was one element that came to define Wilson after he was arrested in the 2010 murder of Mackenzie Cowell, a 17-year-old Wenatchee High School student found bludgeoned, stabbed and strangled along the Columbia River shore. Wilson was the killer, police said, and his motive was "a fascination with death, dead bodies, and serial killers."

Wilson, 32, is now a medium-security prisoner at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, six months after pleading guilty to manslaughter in Cowell's death. In the prison's visiting room, he's asked if he's thought about getting rid of the fictional serial killer on his arm.

"Many, many times," he says. "I've wanted to get it removed. I looked into getting Wrecking Balm, that ointment you can put on that extracts tattoos. A lot of different things - it's just time and money are a huge factor."
Mackenzie Cowell

It will have to wait until he's released - probably in 2023, assuming he doesn't misstep while in prison or come up against other criminal charges. In Washington's penitentiaries, altering tattoos is an infraction.

"A lot of people are identified by their tattoos," he says. "So if you're altering them, it's a security risk."

A lot of people can identify Christopher Wilson by sight now. On Nov. 10, an estimated 6 million viewers watched CBS News' "48 Hours" segment about the murder of Cowell - found dead on the Crescent Bar shoreline Feb. 13, 2010, four days after she disappeared from her studies at Wenatchee's Academy of Hair Design. The episode, built from about two years of research and interviews, followed the case from Cowell's vanishing to Wilson's arrest and eventual plea on the eve of trial.

Despite that plea, Wilson maintained - in letters, phone calls, the "48 Hours" program and a five-hour interview with The Wenatchee World last week - that he did not kill Mackenzie Cowell.

The news program reinforced doubts that echoed around the case: Whether Wilson acted alone or could feasibly have transported Cowell's body; whether two longtime drug offenders actually committed the murder and recorded it on video; how Cowell's blood could have wound up soaked into the carpet of Wilson's apartment, and how DNA resembling his could be found near Cowell's body, if he was innocent.

"48 Hours" was the highest-rated program of that Saturday evening, and Wilson and his supporters hope to build on that attention. An online petition began circulating Monday, asking Gov. Chris Gregoire or her successor, Jay Inslee, to "Re-open Christopher Wilson's case and charge the RIGHT people." (A little-invoked state law allows the governor to assign the attorney general to investigate local criminal cases.) A Facebook group, "Free Christopher Wilson," launched Oct. 23 with similar goals. His family has asked a new attorney to look at the case, seeking grounds for Wilson to withdraw his guilty plea.

Those grounds are limited, because a guilty plea surrenders the right to a straightforward appeal to a higher court. Wilson would have to convince a judge of factors such as misconduct in the prosecution of his case or ineffective performance by his own attorneys - led by famed criminal lawyer John Henry Browne - or unlawful exclusion or manipulation of evidence by police.

The Mackenzie Cowell Task Force, the multi-agency police group assembled after the recovery of Cowell's body, has long said it had more than enough legitimate evidence to convict Wilson of her killing. Key was the discovery of genetic material that matched Wilson's Y-STR profile - possessed by one in 1,047 white males - on duct tape spattered with Cowell's blood found near her body; and blood in Wilson's apartment carpet that was a direct genetic match for Cowell.

Today, Wilson questions the way that evidence was collected and processed. He denies that's his genetic material on the duct tape. He wants to know whether two men eliminated as suspects before his arrest were acting as police drug informants. He finds fault with Browne, saying he was inattentive to his case - perhaps distracted by mass murder charges against another client, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, accused of slaughtering 16 civilians in Afghanistan.

Sgt. Chris Foreman, head of the Columbia River Drug Task Force, said the group does not identify informants working for it. By email, Browne said he and his staff spent hundreds of hours on Wilson's case, and Browne personally reviewed all the discovery.

"The DNA in his carpet was an insurmountable fact, unless we could seriously convince a jury it was planted," Browne wrote.

"... We did a great job and all know that. It is time for Chris to stop fighting and start accepting."

If that's Mackenzie Cowell's blood on his carpet fabric, Wilson says, he has no idea how it got there.

"It wasn't placed there by me, or anybody I know. ... There's no possible way it could've been in my apartment."

If convicted of first-degree murder at trial, Wilson could have faced 26 to 30 years in prison. He says he took the plea, with a term of just over 14 years in prison, in large part because of Browne's seeming unpreparedness and a jury pool that appeared ready to convict him even before being empaneled. About 80 percent of potential jurors surveyed in written questionnaires seemed to lean toward Wilson's guilt. The picture painted of him in police affidavits - dark, tattooed with a madman's face, planning to kill - had taken root in the public mind.

"Until I really saw it there and heard it from the jurors and saw it in the questionnaires, I didn't know how bad it really was," Wilson says. "I thought that some of the things you started reporting would've gotten through, would've made people ask questions, and it didn't seem - it seemed like it was too late at that point. Obviously, it didn't make that big of a dent in the opinion that was already formed."

The plea agreement struck May 23 was the second one offered to Wilson. The first would have given him just under seven years in prison for first-degree manslaughter and unrelated charge of assault, allegedly carried out against a woman a few months prior to Cowell's death. He rejected that offer.

"I did not want to plead to something I didn't do. I didn't want to take six years. ... I wouldn't have taken six months at the time. I was extremely convinced that if I were to get a fair trial, everything that could've come out would've proved that I had nothing to do with this. And it wasn't until I read the jury questionnaires from two different panels, and each panel, 85 percent of the jurors said, 'Oh, he's guilty,' y'know, 'forget it.'"

At his final plea hearing, Wilson answered "Yes" when Chelan County Superior Court Judge Bridges asked if he caused Mackenzie Cowell's death by strangling and stabbing her. But first, he paused.

"I wanted to say 'no' so bad," he says now. "I wanted to look Mr. Cowell and Wendy Cowell in the eye and tell them that, 'I did not do this to your daughter. I did not do this to your sister.' But at that point, we were - it was done."

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