The 30-year-old front page headline asks the question: “Murder or suicide?”
Today, the subject of that article, Kathleen Cobb, wants to focus on the present and the future, not the past.
But Cobb, 53, says she knows the past will always be with her even though she says, “I’m not the same person.”
Cobb, who grew up in Lawrence, served 16 years in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Henry Davis, a Lawrence resident.
It was a sensational case in 1980 — one that focused on drugs and friendship and drew national attention over the question of assisted suicide.
Cobb maintained that she was helping in Davis’ wish to kill himself. A jury, however, said it was murder.
Changing in prison
Fast-forward to the present, and Cobb has recently returned to her hometown and is working as a case manager with the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, where she helps people get to their doctor’s appointments, receive financial assistance and, in general, manage their lives.
While in prison, she said, she took advantage of every opportunity she could to get more education, counseling and work.
“I knew I needed to change,” she said.
She earned an associate’s degree behind bars, and after being paroled in 1996, she moved to Colorado and enrolled in Metropolitan State College of Denver.
Mary Lou Van Voorhis was her instructor there in an American Indian women’s class.
“She was an excellent student,” Van Voorhis said. Van Voorhis was impressed with her inner strength and spirituality. “She motivates people in her quiet way. She’s a listener and also participatory. She was cut out to be a social worker,” she said.
Van Voorhis nominated Cobb for an outstanding student award, which Cobb won. “She overcame a lot of obstacles,” Van Voorhis said.
After getting her bachelor’s degree in social work, Cobb got a master’s in the same subject at Colorado State University.
She then moved to Wyoming where she worked at a small community mental health center as a licensed social worker.
Cobb returned to Lawrence this year, saying she wanted to be near her aging parents; her father, Robert Cobb, is a former executive vice chancellor at Kansas University.
Clashing opinions on licensure
This summer, the state Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board heard her request for a masters social worker license in Kansas.
State law says the board can refuse to issue a license if the person has been convicted of a felony and the board feels the person “has not been sufficiently rehabilitated to merit the public trust.”
The board was divided. In that meeting, Cobb told board members she has thought extensively about what happened 30 years ago.
“I’m not blaming drugs and alcohol, but that was part of it,” she said. “I know now that that was the most severe and biggest mistake I could ever make, and from that time until now I have tried to atone for that,” she said.
The social worker committee of the board recommended against granting the license.
Board member Ron McNish, a psychologist, agreed with that recommendation. “This was first-degree murder,” he said.
McNish said he wouldn’t expect the state to license a doctor or nurse who had been convicted of murder, and because social work can be a “life-saving” occupation, the same rules should apply to social workers.
But Richard Maxfield, another psychologist on the board, said, “It seems to me that Miss Cobb made a terrible mistake many years ago, for which she has paid a very big price, and she has tried to rehabilitate herself, and from what I can tell has done so, successfully. She’s an asset to society at this point.”
The board voted 5-3 to grant her a masters social worker license, once she passes the required exam, but attached a number of conditions that filled nearly four pages. She must be supervised in her work, she must be evaluated to see if she needs further mental health services, she must submit to random drug tests, and she cannot work with clients who are severely depressed or suicidal.
Cobb says she has no problem with the conditions.
“I’ll do what I have to do, to do what I want to do,” she said.
A troubled youth
When Cobb was younger, she was heading for trouble. In 1977, she was convicted of various theft and burglary charges and was incarcerated for nearly a year. Today, she describes her former self as a know-it-all, angry youth who should have listened to her parents.
In 1980, Davis and Cobb were close friends, both 22-year-olds and both heavy drug users, according to reports. Cobb said she thought of Davis like a brother.
But according to testimony at the time, Davis had a suicidal side.
Davis told Cobb he wanted to kill himself because he had had a premonition that he would be in a car crash that would result in a long and painful death. His premonitions had a way of coming true, Cobb said. He was also in debt to some dangerous people, she said.
His plan was to overdose on cocaine and if that didn’t work, the backup was to use a gun. He wrote a suicide note. He wanted Cobb to help him commit suicide.
On the night of Feb. 27, 1980, Davis and Cobb pulled off the side of a country road southwest of Topeka.
Cobb administered two doses of cocaine to Davis, but Davis didn’t die. He went into convulsions.
Cobb panicked. She said she hoped Davis would die without suffering further. She tried to suffocate him. He quieted down. Then she screamed, “God, please forgive me,” and shot him in the back of the head. A coroner later testified that Davis was probably still alive when he was shot.
After Davis’ death, Cobb gave herself up to police and confessed what happened.
At her trial, Cobb said she helped Davis overdose and shot him “because he had asked me to do it and I was only trying to do what he wanted.” But the jury found her guilty of murder and she was sentenced to life in prison with the first possibility of parole after 15 years.
Cobb appealed her conviction, saying the jury should have been allowed to find her guilty of assisting a suicide, which carried a maximum five-year sentence.
But the Kansas Supreme Court rejected her appeal, saying “Davis did not destroy himself. It is possible Davis may have assisted Cobb in destroying himself, but the actual destruction was performed by Kathleen Cobb.”
Today, Cobb sounds like many people who return to Lawrence to live after a long absence. She complains about the humidity and traffic congestion.
But unlike others, she said she knows she will be attached to one event that happened a long time ago.
She turned to social work, she said, because she has had a lot of help in her life and wanted to give back and help others. She said her past drug problems have helped her relate and counsel people who are struggling with addictions.
“I believe that everyone can change. They just need a little help,” she said.