Local News

Samuel Cooper trial on hold until Friday

Posted March 17, 2010 9:45 a.m. EDT
Updated March 18, 2010 12:56 p.m. EDT

— The murder trial has been put on hold for a Raleigh man accused of killing five men in a string of robberies spanning more than a year.

A third day of testimony was expected Wednesday in the trial of Samuel James Cooper, but defense attorney Lisa Miles got sick, prompting Superior Court Judge Henry Hight to recess proceedings until at least Friday morning.

"Life happens, and you have to accommodate it the best that you can," he told jurors before dismissing them Wednesday morning.

Cooper, 33, is on trial facing five first-degree murder charges in the deaths of Ossama "Sam" Haj-Hussein, LeRoy Jernigan, Timothy Barnwell, Ricky High and Tariq Hussain– all were killed during a period spanning more than a year in 2006 and 2007.

If convicted, Cooper could face the death penalty.

Tuesday's testimony focused on Cooper's confession to investigators and the arrest of his father on a possession of a weapon by a felon charge that was dismissed when Cooper agreed to talk about the crimes. (Read more about what happened in court Tuesday.)

Jurors heard an hour-long audio recording of a Nov. 26, 2007, interview in which Cooper talked about the crimes and admitted to shooting the victims.

All except High's death on Oct. 12, 2007, were committed during robberies, he tells investigators in the recording.

"Ricky was a mistake," he says. "'Cause it was supposed to been some Blood (gang) dude that got shot … Ricky just happened to be there at the time when the shooting started."

That was Cooper's fifth interview with Raleigh police detectives, retired homicide investigator George Passley testified.

Defense attorneys – who unsuccessfully sought to have the confession suppressed, arguing it was coerced – questioned Passley at length about the timing and circumstances surrounding Cooper's father's arrest.

They also pointed out that Cooper committed other robberies and that not all of them ended in shootings. Cooper had told police that he tried to stay calm during robberies and that shooting his victims wasn't his intent.

In the case of Haj-Hussein on May 12, 2006, Cooper told investigators he shot him when he started walking to the back of the In & Out store on Creech Road.

"I don't know what he was walking towards the back for. I mean, I ain't get that. I ain't really ask him," he says in the interview played in court. "The guy got shot."

In Barnwell's April 27, 2007, death – prosecutors say Cooper handcuffed and hogtied him while searching his apartment for money and drugs, then shot him after he managed to jump over his second-floor balcony – Cooper said he only shot him when he tried to get away.

"My instinct just kicked in," Cooper says in the interview. "Instinct said, 'You just might, he gonna alert them before you can get up out of here. You gotta, you know, shoot at him.'"

The defense has admitted that Cooper committed the crimes but said the issue in the case is whether he acted with premeditation and deliberation.

His attorneys say that he has a diminished capacity from years of physical abuse at his father's hands, which affects his ability to think clearly, particularly in moments of stress.

On redirect Tuesday, prosecutors asked Passley about Cooper's demeanor during the confession.

Cooper, he said, would sometimes laugh before he would answer a question.

"He was very relaxed. The conversation was as we're talking now – a very normal tone," Passley said. "There was no stress between me and Sam. Very civil."