Montrell Cooper stabbed the mother of his daughter to death in her apartment in the Gompers Homes in East St. Louis on Nov. 30, 2013 — five days after he received probation on a domestic abuse charge.
The killing was the third and final time he was accused of crimes against Michelle Rowling.
“This case stands apart,” said St. Clair County Assistant States Attorney Dan Lewis during a sentencing hearing Thursday for Cooper. “It’s a special kind of evil to murder the mother of your own child.”
Circuit Judge Zina Cruse sentenced Cooper to 50 years in prison.
Cooper, 28, had been charged two previous times with domestic abuse against Rowling, but each time he was sentenced to probation and released from jail.
Though Cooper’s attorney, Cathy MacElroy, asked Cruse to temper justice with mercy and sentence Cooper to the minimum 20 years, Cruse pointed out that she offered Cooper a chance.
On Nov. 25, 2013, Cruse sentenced Cooper to probation on a domestic violence charge after he pushed Rowling in a local grocery store.
“When I told you to leave that girl alone, you told me that you were done with her,” Cruse said. “I believed you. That was my mistake right there.”
The day after he was released, Rowling wrote on her Facebook that she wanted her mother and children to know that she loved them if anything happened to her. She also said by the time she called police, she would be dead. Four days after that, she was. Lewis showed Cruse the autopsy photos of Rowling, who suffered stab wounds to the head, chest and neck. One of her fingers was cut off.
Rowling’s children, an 11-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl, are now being raised by their great-grandmother, Diane Simmons. Simmons described Rowling as a sweet and loving person who was open to everyone.
“I think that is what got her killed,” Simmons said.
Simmons described the difficulties of raising her great-grandchildren, who are grieving the loss of their mother. Cooper is the father of the 7-year-old girl.
“I wish Michelle could be here to raise her children,” Simmons said. “As a great-grandmother, I wanted to spoil them and leave them with their parents, but now as their great-grandmother I am left to raise them.”
Daniel Cuneo, a clinical psychologist, testified that he evaluated Cooper twice for mental illness. The first time, Cuneo said, Cooper tried to fake mental illness. The second time, Cuneo said, he found out Cooper played it straight. Cuneo found Cooper had an IQ of 62 — about that of a 10-year-old. He also found that he had a low frustration tolerance level and borderline personality, marked by fear of abandonment, paranoia and rage reactions. Cooper also had a history of abusing alcohol and marijuana.
“When he blows, he blows sky-high,” Cuneo said. “He’s very impulsive.”
Odette Cooper, Cooper’s mother, told the judge that before he was released from county jail, her son told her that if he got out, he was going to kill Rowling. Odette Cooper told the prosecutor in her son’s case, who told her to tell the East St. Louis Police. Odette Cooper asked her son to stay in jail and get some help. He refused.
“I don’t know why he did this,” Odette Cooper said. “I do know that he did love Michelle.”
Montrell Cooper then read a statement to Cruse, saying that he lost control and “flipped out” that day. He said his actions were indicative of mental illness.
“My mind doesn’t work right. Cathy MacElroy and Greg Nester (Cooper’s attorneys) and the state’s attorneys here, they have stable minds. They have good jobs. I have a a jumpsuit that says St. Clair County Jail,” Cooper said.
He urged Cruse to see him as her child, suffering from a low IQ and poor impulse control. He told Rowling’s family he was sorry.
“I loved Michelle the same way they do,” Cooper told the judge. “I am not a bad person. I made a mistake.”
But Lewis countered in his argument that the crime spoke for itself.
“Terror, overkill and extreme violence was part of her death, but it was also part of her life,” Lewis said.
Cooper will be 74 before he is eligible for release. At that point, the daughter will be 53.