Raleigh, N.C. — The North Carolina Court of Appeals on Tuesday ordered a new murder trial for a Cary man convicted more than two years ago of strangling his wife, who he says went jogging one Saturday morning and never returned home.
Brad Cooper, 39, is serving a life prison sentence for first-degree murder in the July 2008 death of Nancy Cooper, whose body was found in a drainage ditch in a cul-de-sac of an undeveloped subdivision near their home.
The appeal of his May 2011 conviction centered on rulings that Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner made regarding a Google Maps search of the site where Nancy Cooper's body was found – the only concrete evidence linking Brad Cooper to the crime.
State witnesses testified during the trial that the search was performed the day before she disappeared, but defense attorneys contended that someone tampered with the computer.
The Appeals Court's decision was unanimous.
"The trial court did err in limiting (Jay) Ward's testimony in such a manner that prevented him from testifying concerning data retrieved from the laptop, including the Google Maps files," the three-member panel said in its 56-page ruling.
Ward was a network security professional but was found by the trial court not to be qualified as a forensics computer analyst. Another expert witness for the defense, Giovanni Masucci, also wasn't allowed to testify about the files, partly because the judge found that his name was not on a potential witness list, as required by law.
"The Google Map files recovered from the defendant's laptop were perhaps the most important pieces of evidence admitted in this trial," the appeals court said. "We hold that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding Ward from testifying, relying on the state's own evidence, to his opinion that the Google Maps files recovered from the defendant's laptop had been tampered with."
Gessner said Tuesday morning, when contacted by WRAL News, that he had not had a chance to fully read the Appeals Court ruling, "but I respect the ruling of the court and have no further comment."
Brad Cooper's trial attorney, Howard Kurtz, welcomed the ruling, saying he was "thrilled" that his client will get another day in court.
"It's hard to be completely happy when something like this happens, because we shouldn't have had to have gone through an appeal," Kurtz said. "The evidence that drove the conviction was the map. So the fact that I had not only one but two witnesses prepared to say that these maps were planted on that computer would have made all the difference in the world."
Prosecutors argued that Brad Cooper planned his wife's murder and killed her after she returned home from a neighborhood party in the early hours of July 12, 2008.
Witnesses said the Coopers, who moved to Cary from Canada, were in the process of separating and that Nancy Cooper wanted to move back to Canada with their two young children.
Defense attorneys argued that Nancy Cooper went jogging on the morning of her death and never returned home.
The investigation into her death was marred by "dishonest" and "inept" police work, they said, alleging that investigators never looked beyond Brad Cooper as a suspect.
"We were certainly disappointed with the court's decision," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said Tuesday. "We'll talk with the North Carolina Attorney General's Office about it and see whether or not we should seek further review."
If the state decides not to appeal the ruling or the Supreme Court either upholds the decision or declines to hear the case, it would wind up back in Superior Court.
Prosecutors would then decide whether to try the case again, reach a plea agreement or decide not to re-try the case.
More than 100 witnesses testified during Brad Coopers' 10-week murder trial, which is the longest non-capital murder case to be tried in Wake County.