Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
If not for what investigators characterized as a single sperm cell found on the body of a dead girl, there's a very good chance that a Mississippi County teenager named Christopher Sowell would have spent most of the rest of his life in prison, put there by his own words.
In August 2013, Sowell, then 17, gave police a full confession to murder, saying he was the one who killed his 11-year-old neighbor, Jessica Williams, who was found raped and strangled under a bridge near the small community of Gosnell the day before. By the time he admitted to strangling the girl and throwing her off the bridge into the brackish ditch, Sowell had been interrogated for over six hours by detectives, without his parents or a lawyer present.
Another man currently sits in prison, convicted of Williams' rape (but not her murder), and last week a Mississippi County judge granted a prosecutor's request to withdraw the murder charges against Sowell, with the order saying more investigation is required. The option of continuing the prosecution against Sowell is open for one year, but statements by the prosecutor would seem to suggest that the possibility of Sowell being recharged in the case is unlikely.
Williams was reported missing by her parents on Aug. 27, 2013, after she didn't return from playing with her dog. Early the next morning, searchers found her body floating under a bridge near the Bo Docks landing area on East County Road 122. A preliminary autopsy would later say that Williams died from strangulation and drowning. Swabs taken from her body tested positive for the presence of semen.
The day after the discovery of Williams' body, Sowell, a junior at Gosnell High School who rode the same school bus as Williams, was taken in for questioning by local police. A friend and neighbor of Williams' later told a Memphis TV station that Sowell would often tease Williams on the bus, leading to arguments.
Soon, Sowell had confessed to killing Jessica Williams. A synopsis written by an investigator with the Mississippi County Sheriff's Office had Sowell saying that after encountering the girl on the bridge, an argument ensued before Sowell had pushed Williams off the bridge onto the ground below.
"Sowell then stated that after Jessica got back up onto the bridge that she stated she was going to tell her father about the incident," the investigator wrote. "Sowell further stated that he became angry and scared, grabbing Jessica by her throat and choking her until he observed her to get 'wide-eyed.' He then pushed her over the side of the bridge into the water and walked away."
After his confession, Sowell was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. In September 2013, at the request of Sowell's attorney, a judge issued a gag order forbidding police, attorneys and others involved from commenting to anyone about the case. The following month, Sowell pleaded not guilty to the charges. Ordered held on a $2 million cash-only bond, he was given a January 2014 court date.
With the confession, it would have seemed that investigators had their man. But when DNA results on the swabs taken from Williams' body came back from the Arkansas State Crime Lab, they did not match a sample taken from Christopher Sowell. Investigators would later collect voluntary swabs from several people in the Gosnell community, including one taken in December 2013 from Freddie Sharp III, 29, Williams' neighbor and the father of Williams' playmates. When the sample from Sharp was submitted for analysis, it came back as a DNA match to a single sperm cell found on Williams' labia.
On Jan. 9, 2014, six days before Sharp was arrested for the rape of Jessica Williams, a judge slashed Sowell's bond to $25,000. His family quickly bonded him out of jail. Sharp, meanwhile, pled not guilty, and was ordered held on a $1 million cash bond, which was later reduced to $500,000. Though Sharp's attorney speculated in a motion that the prosecutor might amend Sharp's charges to include capital murder, it was never done.
As detailed in reporting by the Blytheville Courier-News, Sharp was put on trial for Williams' rape in October 2014. The same month, a judge rescheduled Sowell's court date to January 2015. At Sharp's trial, an investigator with the Mississippi County Sheriff's Department testified that as the search for Williams was ongoing, he saw a green Jeep run a stop sign before heading north on Highway 122, toward the bridge where the girl's body was eventually found. The investigator said seeing the Jeep, a match for one driven by Sharp that day, was what later led him to question Sharp.
On the second day of the trial, after Sharp's attorney, Chet Dunlap, alleged that deputies failed to serve a subpoena on Sowell so he could testify at Sharp's trial, Dunlap called for a mistrial. Second District Circuit Judge Cindy Thyer denied the request. Thyer also denied a request to allow the jury to hear the testimony of Williams' neighbor, who said that Williams was scared of Christopher Sowell, that he'd tried to stick his finger in a rip in her pants, and that he'd tried to get her to come inside his house for a drink several times as she was riding by Sowell's house on her bicycle.
Taking the stand in his own defense, Sharp denied that he'd raped Williams, saying that his DNA might have gotten on Williams' body when he and his young son stopped to urinate off the bridge where her body was later found while returning from checking fields the evening Williams disappeared. A serologist with the State Crime Lab later testified that none of Williams' clothes tested positive for the presence of semen, only her mouth and vagina, and an expert hired by the defense said that the possibility that a sperm cell from Sharp's urine traveling through the water to be deposited on Williams' body was unlikely. On Oct. 17, 2014, a jury deliberated for 15 minutes before returning a sentence of guilty on the rape charge, later giving Sharp a sentence of 25 years in prison. At this writing, he hasn't been charged in connection with Williams' murder.
On Jan. 14, 2014, prosecutors again reset Sowell's trial for April 1. Then, on Feb. 11, the prosecution moved to nolle prosse the case, withdrawing the charges against Sowell. In her order granting the prosecution's motion, Circuit Judge Melissa Richardson wrote, "[M]ore investigation is required in the case pending against Sowell. Said investigation likely will take longer than the amount of time afforded by a continuance of this matter." Prosecutors have the option to refile the charges against Sowell within a year. Sowell's attorney, John Bradley, refused to comment, and attempts to reach Sowell or his family were unsuccessful.
A post about prosecutors withdrawing charges against Sowell on the Facebook page of Jonesboro TV station KAIT, Channel 8, was met with a mixture of confusion, anger and bloodlust, with several posters saying Sowell should be killed. One poster said: "I'd hunt him down and give him a slow painful death if that was my child. Rape him with a piece of hot iron rod." Another said: "Someone will kill this kid on the streets. It's only a matter of when and where."
After the gag order in the case was lifted late last week, a reporter for Arkansas Times asked Scott Ellington, prosecutor for the Second Judicial District, why the charges were withdrawn. "If I anticipated continuing with the prosecution, I wouldn't have nolle prossed it," Ellington said. "I think we're taking a step back to reassess."
He said that the job of his office was not only to get justice for Jessica Williams, "but also to prevent injustice to Christopher Sowell."
Ellington wouldn't say whether he plans to charge Freddie Sharp III with murder in the death of Jessica Williams, saying only that if they are able to uncover sufficient evidence, they will re-evaluate what they want to do then. As to why Sharp was never charged with murder when the DNA hit came back, Ellington said, "It's difficult in circumstances where you already have one person charged with murder to turn around and charge another person with murder. So we made the decision to go forward on the rape charge. ... We had discussions about it, and we felt sure, with the evidence and the testimony, that we would have a good shot at a conviction on rape."
As to the troubling possibility that Christopher Sowell was talked into giving a false confession by investigators in the case, Ellington would not comment, saying the case is technically still open. Asked if he believes Sowell's confession was legitimate, Ellington said only that it would be "awfully difficult to convict" Sowell when the DNA results came back as they did.
Ellington was the final prosecutor in the West Memphis Three case, which famously hinged on the confession of a teenaged Jessie Misskelley, who was also questioned for hours without parents or an attorney present before confessing. (Misskelley later withdrew his confession.) Asked if the Sowell case might make him reconsider his stated belief that Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin are guilty, Ellington said that the Sowell case and the WM3 case are "totally unrelated." As for whether he believes in false confessions in general, Ellington said, "I've not done an in-depth study, so I don't know. How can I answer this honestly and candidly to you? I would say it's possible. I guess it's possible."
After informing Ellington of the threats and anger directed toward Sowell on Facebook and other social media after news broke that the charges against Sowell had been withdrawn, the Arkansas Times asked if his office would make a statement exonerating Sowell if further evaluation shows that Sowell had nothing to do with the murder of Jessica Williams.
"I have not even thought about making that kind of statement, not that I wouldn't," he said. "I've been dealing with other things. I guess I should pay more attention to Facebook."
Over the weekend, Ellington left a message on the reporter's phone, saying he planned to issue a statement regarding the Sowell case early this week. Ellington was unavailable for comment on the content of the statement, which had not been issued at press time.
UPDATE: On Feb. 18, after this story went to press, Second Judicial District Prosecutor Scott Ellington issued a statement exonerating Christopher Sowell. Ellington's statement said, in part: “Based upon due diligence and forensic science, two things became clear following the Freddie Sharp III rape trial: 1.) Mr. Sowell was not involved in the murder of Jessica Williams and 2.) his original statement did not square with the scientific evidence in this case. My office, the Mississippi County Sheriff's Office, and the Arkansas State Police will continue to work on this matter in pursuit of justice for Jessica, the Williams family and the good people of our community.”