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Judge denies request to release Cooper search warrants

A Superior Court judge on Thursday denied a motion by two local media outlets to unseal three search warrants related to the ongoing murder investigation of Nancy Cooper.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — 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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