By Mike Hixenbaugh
Rocky Mount Telegram
Monday, September 29, 2008
GREENVILLE – After asserting his innocence for more than 20 months, a former Rocky Mount funeral director unexpectedly admitted Monday morning that he plotted with his mistress to murder his wife nearly two years ago.
Six days after court proceedings began, Mark Bowling and his attorneys agreed to a plea bargain that will send him to prison for no less than 15 years and three months.
Bowling stood straight and fidgeted slightly as he entered the plea, expressing no emotion while his mother wept behind him. Prosecutors initially expressed intentions to seek the death penalty against Bowling but entered the trial last week hoping for a life sentence. With the plea deal, Bowling faces a maximum of 19 years and eight months in prison for planning his wife’s slaying.
The plea deal brings to an end a high-profile murder trial that could have lasted several weeks.
Bowling had long dismissed accusations that he plotted to kill his wife, Julie Bowling, 45, who was shot to death in the early hours of Dec. 8, 2006, in her home’s garage on River Glenn. Mark Bowling’s admitted lover Rose Vincent pleaded guilty in February to the shooting and pointed to Mark Bowling as the man who orchestrated the homicide.
Vincent, who was in court on Monday, was to be the state’s lead witness in its case against Bowling, the one-time owner of several area funeral homes.
Bowling declined to speak during sentencing and refused comment afterward as he was escorted by deputies out of the courtroom.
Bowling’s defense team of Tommy Moore and Tom Sallenger earlier had argued diligently for their client’s innocence, saying at one pretrial hearing that this was “a case where we will fight to prove his innocence every step of the way.”
But on Monday, Bowling, 37, and his defense attorneys ended the trial by pleading guilty to second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.
“We looked at the facts and evidence that had been presented to us by the state and through the witness stand,” Sallenger said afterward. “After looking at that and anticipating what the rest of the evidence would be in the case, we thought that this resolution was the best for Mr. Bowling, and Mr. Bowling strongly agreed.”
‘A Strong Case’
Prosecutors said they were prepared to present a comprehensive case that would have proved Bowling convinced his mistress to murder his wife so he could collect on her life insurance policy and save his financially-strained funeral home business.
A deputy last week read aloud Vincent’s confession to authorities, in which she said Bowling asked her several times to kill his wife. Vincent told officials she never would have shot Bowling if “Mark hadn’t told (her) to.” She said Bowling provided her with the weapon and at one point offered her $50,000 to pull the trigger. Vincent, a married mother of three children from Middlesex, said she didn’t care about the money.
“He said this was the only way we could be together,” Vincent said in the statement. “He’s promised me everything under the sun, but all I wanted was to be with him.”
Vincent, 28, was offered softer charges and sentencing in exchange for her future testimony against Bowling. She is serving a minimum 29-year sentence.
Vincent’s testimony – along with the insurance policy taken out by Julie Bowling one month prior to the shooting – was to lay the foundation for the prosecution’s case, officials said. And cell phone records compiled by investigators would have effectively “slammed the door shut,” Assistant District Attorney Keith Werner said.
Bowling was scuba diving in Florida at the time of the shooting. During a phone call played for jurors last week, Bowling never asked authorities how his wife died. Yet, in a conversation that immediately followed, Bowling told a funeral home employee that his wife had been shot to death, Werner said.
Prosecutors were prepared to call nearly 30 witnesses to testify, including former employees of a Rocky Mount escort service who had entertained Bowling on the second floor of his funeral home.
Bowling allegedly asked at least one stripper to kill his wife in the weeks leading up to her murder.
“The state did an excellent job in preparing for this case. They really had a strong case,” Sallenger said. “We came in this morning fully expecting that we would go forward. There was an opportunity to resolve it without having to go through the entire course of a trial. We took advantage of that opportunity.”
District Attorney Howard Boney refused to comment on the case and asked his staff not to speak publicly about the plea agreement or any other court proceedings.
Prosecutors met privately with members of Julie Bowling’s family Monday before agreeing to the deal. The state would not have moved forward without their approval, officials said.
Line of Defense
Moore laid the groundwork during opening statements last week for what would have been Bowling’s defense. Bowling admitted to cheating on his wife with multiple women, but “he loved his wife,” Moore said.
Sallenger and Moore were prepared to call more than 40 witnesses to the stand, including Bowling himself, to vouch for their client’s character and paint Rose Vincent as a “clingy” mistress who wanted nothing more than “to be Julie Bowling.”
But with the prospect of life in prison looming, Sallenger and Moore advised Bowling to take the deal.
Sources close to the case said the defense had been seeking a plea agreement for several weeks leading up to the trial. After sitting through less than three days of sworn testimony, defense attorneys asked prosecutors to reopen that conversation.
Sallenger and Moore agreed the deal was in Bowling’s best interest but wished they would have had an opportunity to argue their case. The defense had planned to highlight inconsistencies in testimony and then leave it up to the jury to determine who to believe.
“I would have liked to have seen how this thing would have played out in the fourth quarter,” Sallenger said. “But this is what we agreed upon.”
Family Satisfied, Public Outraged
The family of Julie Rowland Bowling cried quietly as Mark Bowling accepted the plea agreement but later expressed their satisfaction with the case.
“The family understood the necessity of reaching the plea agreement with Rose Vincent earlier, and the family is now satisfied that Mark Bowling has admitted to being equally responsible for Julie’s death in concert with Rose Vincent,” the Rowland family said in a written statement through their attorney Dee Whitely.
Not everyone was as happy with the outcome. More than 70 comments of public outrage were recorded on the Telegram’s Web site within four hours of the verdict.
The lurid draw of a prominent community figure involved in a love-triangle murder has spurred hundreds of local and regional news stories and intense public interest in recent months.
The trial was moved to Pitt County earlier this year after the defense argued that sensational media coverage would have made a fair trial impossible in Nash County.
A survey the defense conducted showed that nearly 50 percent of Nash County residents already had determined that Bowling was guilty months ahead of the trial.
Many local bloggers repeatedly have called for both Bowling and Vincent to be executed.
While recognizing those desires, the victim’s family members said they were concerned that Bowling might walk away a free man if tried by a jury, so they gave prosecutors the OK to strike a deal.
Bowling, who sobbed and shook in his chair last week when crime-scene photos of his slain wife were shown to jurors, gave a solemn nod toward his family and waved before being escorted one last time from the courtroom.
Bowling shed no tears during court proceedings Monday.