Cooper murder trial witnesses recall finding victims
Posted March 22, 2010 4:49 p.m. EDT
Updated March 22, 2010 9:52 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Wake County prosecutors seeking the death penalty against a man on trial for five homicides focused on testimony Monday in two of the cases from witnesses who found the victims as well as investigators who responded to the crimes.
Samuel James Cooper, 33, faces first-degree murder charges in the deaths of Ossama "Sam" Haj-Hussein, LeRoy Jernigan, Timothy Barnwell, Ricky High and Tariq Hussain. All were shot to death between May 2006 and October 2007.
Much of the morning's testimony focused on the case of Haj-Hussein, 43, who was killed inside the In & Out Food Mart, on Creech Road in Raleigh, the morning of May 12, 2006.
Prosecutors said last week that Haj-Hussein was inside his store eating breakfast and drinking coffee when Cooper robbed him and shot him twice in the head and face – at least once from close range.
Thomas Cathey testified Monday to being in the store around 8:30 a.m. on May 12 and seeing a McDonald's bag and cup of coffee on the store counter but never seeing a store employee while he was there.
He and his wife returned about 45 minutes later, he said.
"Nothing had changed," he testified. "I didn't see the clerk. The same McDonald's bag was there – the coffee. My wife was getting nervous."
At that point, Cathey said, his wife walked outside while he proceeded toward the back of the store, where he discovered Haj-Hussein's body. He turned around and ran out of the store, he said. His wife flagged down a Wake County sheriff's deputy who was driving by at the time.
During emotional testimony Monday afternoon, Judy Ann Maurer, assistant manager for Circus Family Restaurant on Wake Forest Road, recounted how she found Jernigan dead on June 3, 2006.
A cleaning contractor, Jernigan, 41, had been working in the restaurant, prosecutors said, when Cooper shot him once in the head, stole his truck and fled the scene.
Robbery was a motive, Cooper told investigators in an audio interview played in court last week, but he mistakenly thought Jernigan was the store manager who would have had access to the store's money.
"There were quite a few things that weren't right," Maurer said, recalling things she noticed that morning as she approached the restaurant.
The drive-through door was open, and there was an orange drop cord hanging out a window, she said. Another thing that struck her, she said: "I saw no vehicles at all."
When she went inside the restaurant, she said, she heard running water. Thinking Jernigan was still cleaning, she walked into the kitchen, where she found him lying face-down next to the sink.
"He had a big hole in the top of his head, and he was laying in a big pool of blood," she said. "That's when I called the police."
Several law enforcement authorities also testified Monday about what they saw at the crime scenes and the methods they used to collect evidence.
They walked jurors through videos of the crime scenes, during which some of Jernigan's family members had to leave court.
Cooper, meanwhile, looked away from the footage. Since his trial began last week, he has spent much of the time so far with his head down doing crossword puzzles, according to court personnel.
The trial was in recess for three days because a defense attorney was sick.
Last Tuesday afternoon, Sgt. Kevin Carswell, a supervisor of one of the Raleigh Police Department's homicide squads, testified about how ballistics evidence recovered from the five crime scenes matched a gun Cooper dropped following a November 2007 bank robbery in Garner.
On cross-examination Monday morning, Carswell also testified about investigators' decision to arrest Cooper's father on a felony weapons possession charge for moving a gun in his home and about a decision later on to release him after Cooper agreed to talk about the crimes.
Carswell said that, at first, charging Sam Cooper Sr. wasn't a priority for investigators. A convicted felon, he told police searching his home that he had moved a gun, meaning that he was in possession of the weapon.
"The fact that he moved the pistol was very concerning to us. We thought maybe there was some type of cover-up going on," Carswell said. "We were still investigating ... The father was appearing to advocate for truthfulness, so we factored that into our decision about whether to arrest."
After reviewing jail phone calls between the younger Cooper and his father, they realized the father wasn't fully cooperative or being truthful, Carswell said.
"It was Sunday (Nov. 25, 2007) that we realized that the father was no longer advocating and had sort of been playing both sides of the fence," Carswell said.
Although defense attorneys unsuccessfully sought to have Cooper’s confession suppressed, arguing it was coerced, they don't deny Cooper shot his victims.
The issue in the trial, they have said, 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.