A jury on Thursday found a Livingston Parish man guilty of second-degree murder in the death of a Maurepas teen whose skull was repeatedly bludgeoned with a hammer after having her neck and jaw broken while she was still alive and whose body was dumped in the woods.

The jury deliberated about an hour Thursday afternoon before returning its verdict against John Cowart, 37, also of Maurepas, in the February 2018 death of 18-year-old Emily Rodgers.

Neither the state or the defense disputed that Cowart killed Rodgers, but the crux of the case was whether he intended to do so.

Cowart initially had denied knowing anything about Rodgers’ disappearance, but later led investigators to her body, dumped near a swamp off Catfish Landing Road, according to court testimony.

His final, most detailed statement to Livingston Parish Sheriff’s detectives outlined a scenario in which he alleges he and Rodgers were “messing around” in a friend’s bedroom the night of Feb. 4, 2018, when Rodgers placed a zip tie around her own neck and it got too tight, cutting off her airway.

Cowart said he panicked when she stopped breathing and started flopping around, so he put her to the trunk of his car and dumped her body. He also used jumper cables to strangle her and a hammer to hit her in the head, he said.

But, detectives said a zip tie was never found around Rodgers’ neck nor in their searches of Cowart’s car or the woods where the body was dumped. East Baton Rouge Parish forensic pathologist Jimmy Smith, who conducted the autopsy on Rodgers, said it was unlikely something like a zip tie caused her death. When asked if a household hammer could have caused the blunt force injuries, he said it could have, but it's unlikely a single strike would've been enough.

Cowart took a rare step Thursday in choosing to take the stand as the defense's only witness, contrary to the advice of his attorneys.

On the stand, his story differed in parts from the four police interviews previously shown in court.

When testifying, he said he struck Rodgers only once with the hammer and another accomplice, Derek Williford, who was with him to dump the body, struck Rodgers also.

Cowart previously told police he'd struck Rodgers several times, and even missed the first time. Cowart said he'd used methamphetamine at least three times the night Rodgers died, and said there were parts of the sequence of events he didn't remember.

Williford and another man, Justin Scivicque, both are charged with obstruction of justice, accused of helping Cowart with tasks like burning evidence or providing him with clothing after the slaying. Their cases are ongoing. Both are from Maurepas.

Smith's testimony of the autopsy findings proved critical to the state's case Thursday, fueling the prosecution's theory that the zip tie around Rodgers' neck that supposedly sparked the subsequent attack didn't exist at all.

Smith said Rodgers was likely manually strangled, rather than with an item like a zip tie or jumper cables, and that bones in her neck were broken as a result. Her skull was fractured completely from the left to the right side and jaw broken completely in half, both injuries sustained while she was still alive.

Smith said she would have survived the broken neck bone, but the blunt force trauma to her skull — that exposed brain in some parts — was the ultimate cause of death.

Rodgers also had a range of drugs in her system at the time of her death, including a byproduct of methamphetamine, fentanyl, alcohol and synthetic drugs, though the quantities were difficult to determine due to the condition of the body at death.

When asked by his attorneys if there was anything he'd like to say at the end of his testimony, Cowart addressed the members of Rodgers' family sitting in the courtroom.

"I'm very, very, very, very sorry to her family for their loss," he said. "I had absolutely no intention of hurting her. … If I could take that whole night back, I would."

Cowart, who faces a mandatory life in prison, is scheduled for sentencing Nov. 18.

Email Emma Kennedy at ekennedy@theadvocate.com.