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Cooper defense asks for compassion, understanding

Posted April 15, 2010
Updated April 16, 2010

— Defense attorneys appealed to jurors Thursday not to sentence their client, Samuel James Cooper, to death for a series of Wake County murders that prosecutors argued were committed by a cold-blooded serial killer.

"This is not the abuse excuse that the state might want to suggest that it is," Cooper's attorney, Lisa Miles, told jurors. "It's not an excuse at all. It is a story about what happens to a child who grows up knowing nothing from his parents but fear and violence. Mom taught him fear. Dad taught him violence."

Cooper, 33, was convicted last week of first-degree murder in the 2006 and 2007 shooting deaths of Ossama Haj-Hussein, 43, LeRoy Jernigan, 41, Timothy Barnwell, 34, Ricky High, 48, and Tariq Hussain, 52.

Jurors will begin deliberating Friday morning after Superior Court Judge Henry Hight instructs them about how sentencing law applies to Cooper's case.

Following his arrest in a November 2007 bank robbery, Cooper confessed to the killings, and ballistics evidence from a gun involved in that robbery linked him to the five cases.

The trial was never about whether he committed the crimes but rather his mental state at the time.

His defense attorneys argued that he was in a delusional state, absent of any emotions and did not understand the consequences of his actions because of years of "bizarre and ritualized" abuse at the hands of a father who never told showed affection and a mother who let the violence happen.

"Your choices are life or death. If you give him death, you'll complete the job (Samuel Cooper) Sr. started 33 years ago," defense attorney Michael Howell said. "Or, you could give him something he rarely – if ever – had, compassion."

The abuse Cooper endured was so severe, defense attorney Stephen Freedman said, that it "literally broke his mind," forcing him to separate himself emotionally from the violence.

Prosecutors don't deny Cooper was abused as a child but believe the testimony was embellished by his family members because he faces the death penalty.

"Was it bad? Yes. I'm not trying to say it wasn't," Wake County Assistant District Attorney Jeff Cruden told jurors. "But to the extent they want to sell it to you, I'd ask you to be very cautious about that."

Cruden argued that Cooper is a serial killer who shot his victims in cold blood. He might have some mental issues, he said, but none of them affected his ability to form a specific intent to kill.

"If this case and these crimes aren't deserving of the death penalty, then what is?" Cruden asked jurors, as photos behind him showed each of the victims as they were found at the crime scenes.

In the case of Tariq Hussain, who was shot Oct. 14, 2007, at Bobby's Grocery on Garner Road, Cooper walked into the store with his gun in hand, ready to fire. As Hussain lay dying on the floor, Cooper stepped over him and took money from his register.

"He's just picking it up, like he's shopping in a grocery store, with no pity, no sympathy, no remorse," Cruden said. "He hardly looked down at the man there, taking what he wants because that's what it's about."

But Cooper is not the worst of killers, Howell said. He's not a stalker, a sexual pervert or a torturer, but "a mentally ill robber that sometimes overreacted to unreal or misperceived events."

"He took no pleasure in killing anybody. He got no enjoyment out of it," Howell said.

Defense attorneys characterized Cooper not only as a victim of not only abuse but also of a system in which social services failed him growing up by not intervening until he was older and out of the home.

Miles, who cried during her closing argument, said Cooper had a few moments of "pure joy" running track as a child, but that joy was overshadowed by years of beatings and threats.

"We can't help 9-year-old Sammy. It's too late. We can't bring back the five lost men. It's too late," Miles said. "All we can do now is choose how to respond."

"In choosing life, you in no way diminish the humanity of these five very well-loved men. In choosing compassion, you do not forgive Sammy for these sorrowful deaths," she continued.

"Instead, you show your understanding that he was shaped and molded into something he didn't have to be and into something he didn't want to be – that he is not the worst of the worst."


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  • John Sawtooth Apr 16, 2010

    Normally, I'd reserve the death penalty for a real sadistic, enthusiastically evil type. However, I would want to protect other inmates from this person, I think it's likely he'd kill again in prison, but I can't be certain enough of that, I don't think.

    I wonder why his brother isn't quite the same as he is ? This guy is a difficult choice. To me, it's not about cost, or revenge, or the mis-quoted 'eye for an eye'. It's about protecting society from someone who cannot be prevented form killing.

  • EverythingTicksMeOff Apr 16, 2010

    Hard to believe that this tack is going to work. As you can see from all the commeents here, the average person's response is he had no compassion or understanding for his victims. I think any lawyer who would please for compassion and understanding is incompetent. Which is probably going to be the basis for his appeal....

  • gnewsome1 Apr 16, 2010

    How about compassion and understanding for the victims and their families. Where was the compassion when Cooper committed the heinous crimes???? Do the crime, do the time and stop blaming Social Service and others for your misdeeds. He should take responsibility for his own actions. You liberal bloggers should stop taking up for this criminal. How would you feel if someone in your family were murdered?? You would be singing a different tune.

  • aknight Apr 16, 2010


  • Lead by Example Apr 16, 2010


    By your logic we shouldn't punish anybody huh? Let's just do away with the justice system altogether.

    Besides, the original Hebrew text regarding the "Eye for an Eye" verse in the bible was not what most people think. It was to give balance to sentencing, in other words don't take a life if all that a victim lost was an eye, etc.

  • Lead by Example Apr 16, 2010

    A death sentence is the only guaranteed way to make sure this man is never released. It would only take one vote from a "bleedin' heart" legislature in the future to give this man parole on a life sentence; AS HAS ALREADY HAPPENED IN THIS STATE IN THE EARLY 1980S. Just look at the court mess that is going on right now with those inmates sentenced in the 1970s.

    The man deserves the death penalty anyway.

  • jgriffith3792 Apr 16, 2010

    He took a life, actually multiple, and should pay with his own. Like all murderers. Period.

  • VT1994Hokie Apr 15, 2010

    This man is an ANIMAL. He killed 5 people. We sometimes forget about the many people in these 5 families. It affects so many of us. He is a common thug. Out Federal, State, and Local gov'ts should step up and see that we have more killings today in the History of the USA. I wish that we could hang a few and let the World see it. Too many get off the hook. Sent to prison and we pay the same bills each year. A revolving door. We need to hire more LEO's. We need to elect Judges that will put the hammer down. I am afraid to leave my doors unlocked in the middle of the day.

  • IliveinwhackogopcontrolledNC Apr 15, 2010

    The only way to disperse scum is with a strong solution. Defense lawyers should be admired for their theatrical ignorance, ego and disdain for the public at large.

  • dono422 Apr 15, 2010

    The girl is right. It does cost more to execute someone than to feed and house them. Wonder why? Trial lawyers pressure on the NC Legislators to enact laws requiring numerous appeals for which your tax dollars fund at the tune of $100 or more per hour for the defense attorneys handling the appeal. Yes that runs into hundreds of thousands of your tax dollars spent on this trash. Another example of special interest groups getting their hand in the cookie jar. Change the law and require executions to be carried out within 2 years or do away with the death penalty.