Local News

Judge denies request to release Cooper search warrants

Posted July 31, 2008

— A Superior Court judge denied a motion Thursday by two local media outlets to unseal three search warrants related to the ongoing murder investigation of Nancy Cooper, a Cary woman found dead more than two weeks ago.

Hugh Stevens, an attorney for Capitol Broadcasting Co., the parent company of WRAL News, and The News & Observer Publishing Co. argued for nearly an hour on a motion he filed earlier this week for the public release of the documents.

But Judge Donald W. Stephens, who temporarily sealed the search warrants, wrote in his order that the release of the information would be premature and "likely risk and jeopardize the success of the investigation" as well as "a fair trial by a fair and impartial jury."

Search warrants typically contain detailed explanations as to why law enforcement authorities want to search a particular location, evidence they are looking for and often what investigators think might have happened to the victim.

Stevens said Thursday that he understood there could circumstances that require such information to stay out of the public eye but said the matter went further than releasing the Cooper search warrants, alluding to several other high-profile cases in the area in which search warrants have been sealed.

"We seem to be seeing a proliferation of these kinds of orders lately," Stevens said. "But I'm concerned they're simply being sought for the mere convenience of the authorities. I'm sure it's always easier for them if nothing was public."

Judge Stephens, however, disagreed, saying that among the "tremendous volume of criminal investigations" in which search warrants are issued that the frequency of a judge signing an order to seal them "is not a routine event."

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby asked that no part of the warrants be released, saying that keeping the information private at this point in the investigation is crucial to the case.

"It may be of the nature that would alert someone who is an offender as to what evidence law enforcement has," Willoughby said. "It may alert an offender as to what evidence law enforcement is seeking."

Cooper, 34, a mother of two, was found dead in an undeveloped subdivision just outside Cary’s town limit on July 14, two days after a friend reported her missing when she failed to show up for a planned meeting.

Authorities have said they do not believe Cooper's slaying was a random crime but that they have not named a suspect or person of interest in the case. They've said little else about the case since then.

Three search warrants were the topic of Thursday's hearing.

One is regarding a July 16 search for Cooper's house and vehicles as well as DNA evidence from her husband, Brad Cooper. A second one, issued July 21, allowed police to search Brad Cooper's office on the Research Triangle Park campus of Cisco Systems Inc.. A third warrant, dated July 25, does not specify a search location.

The search warrants will remain sealed until mid-to-late August – 30 days from the date they were returned. Prosecutors, however, can request again that they be sealed for another 30 days.

"I do believe that the 30-day duration is adequate, at this time," Willoughby said. "It may be the state has to come back and ask that it be extended. We may ask for some additional period of time."

The Cooper case marks the third instance in recent months in which the media have asked documents related to high-profile homicides be unsealed.

In May, the News & Observer filed a motion opposing Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall's request to seal autopsy results in the March 5 death of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill senior Eve Carson. The Durham Herald-Sun had filed a similar motion in April asking the search warrants in the case be released.

Search warrants have also been sealed in other recent high-profile cases in Wake County, including the January death of another Cary woman, Vanlata Patel, whose body was found burning along a Virginia road. The warrants, however, were unsealed after her husband, Harish Patel, was arrested and charged in the case.

Besides the Cooper search warrants, one other warrant remains under seal in Wake County – that relating to the November 2006 beating death of Michelle Young, a 29-year-old pregnant mother.

Authorities have not named any suspects in the case, but according to other court documents, her husband, Jason Young, has been a focus of the investigation.


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  • Goalieman Aug 1, 2008

    I have read all the post and this is my second on this subject. I understand the media wanting to do their job, be the first to report the big news breaks, but, some things need to be dealt with reasonably. One person asked what is so wrong about making the warrants public? It may not be the information in the warrants but the way people interpret them. They would here about everything the police seized and then condemn the husband, like they already do. In this Country, people are innocent until PROVEN or ADMIT to guilt.

    The judge making the decision to keep these documents under seal is a very smart move. People will always wonder but "give them an inch, they will take a mile!" If you make the records public, peoples imaginations will run wild and influence others not allowing a fair trial to the suspects, unless like I said, they ADMIT to the crime.

  • spotted horse rider Aug 1, 2008

    Way to stand your ground, Judge!

  • jmflu Jul 31, 2008

    RedHott - are you saying her friend who called the police was just nosy? You would rather have hundreds of people continue to look for days on end until they found her? Thank goodness she was concerned for her friend... since she was RIGHT... perhaps there was evidence on the body that was salvaged that would not have been if it weren't for that call at the time that it came!

  • Jay4 Jul 31, 2008

    Thank you, Judge Stephens, for keeping the info in the search warrants sealed - for now. Prayers continue that the investigators will find the truth and the murderer of Nancy Cooper will be arrested soon.

  • carolinakhaki Jul 31, 2008

    "The Cary police department is a joke, does anybody know why the last chief resigned.....a ton of pubiity not a lot of substance....Cary in a nutshell....PS I live there"

    With that attitude, don't let the rest of us hold you back from relocating.

  • DukeMoney Jul 31, 2008

    Thank goodness for a judge who doesn't kowtow to the gotta-wanna-need-it-have-to-have-it-now "Nancy Grace" news media.

    Judge Stephens is to be commended for exercising the courts' inherent constitutional powers to ensure an orderly investigation for the sake of the public and a fair trial for whomever might be accused of this crime. Maybe the N&O will make him its Tar Heel of the Week this Sunday.

  • Gork Jul 31, 2008

    Remember the prosecutor in the Duke rape case? A little more transparency might have prevented him from spitting on the defendants' rights. They survived because they had benefit of very expensive legal talent - how many of us could afford that if we were framed? That, historically, has been the role of the press, to insist on that transparency when the government resists. It's not just a good thing, it's a necessary part of our constitutional system.

  • FE Jul 31, 2008

    As I said @ 3:50 pm, there was NO WAY that Judge Stephens was going to unseal those documents at this time.

    I watched most of the court session on WRAL. Attorney Stevens gave it a valiant try for his "media clients" but justice prevailed. At the proper time the facts behind the three search warrants will be available to the public, so everyone needs to calm down a bit.

    It was interesting to hear Judge Stephens say he signed one of the search warrants at 2 am while sitting at his kitchen table. Interesting!

    Kudos to District Attorney Willoughby and to Judge Stephens for seeing the big picture, and protecting the integrity of the ongoing police investigation as well as the rights of the accused person(s).


  • thirdandlong Jul 31, 2008

    The Cary police department is a joke, does anybody know why the last chief resigned.....a ton of pubiity not a lot of substance....Cary in a nutshell....PS I live there

  • Eduardo1 Jul 31, 2008

    Great job your HONOR. Lets keep the investigators free of interference and outside pressure. Brad Cooper, has withstood all types of pressure. The loss of a wife, hopefully only the temporary loss of his children to low-life folks from Canada. Of course if nothing is found as a result of the full execution of the warrants, we hope that the LOE, will make the kind of remarks to let Mr. Cooper gets some mental rest. He is to be commended for not losing his cool during this pressure cooking business