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Psychiatrist testifies in Cooper murder trial

Posted March 30, 2010 2:23 p.m. EDT
Updated March 30, 2010 8:00 p.m. EDT

— A forensic psychiatrist testifying Tuesday in the capital murder trial of Samuel James Cooper said the child abuse the defendant suffered at the hands of his father was "ritualistic, sadistic and bizarre" and left him with two mental disorders that could explain why he killed five men.

"When you start looking at some of the characteristics of abuse that occurred in the Cooper household, I've got to tell you, that this is pretty remarkable," George Corvin said.

Cooper's sisters and mother testified Monday to the years of abuse, in which they said Cooper was beaten several times a week, often while his mother and siblings watched helplessly. (Read more about their testimony.)

His father would often beat the children while singing songs, like "Blue Suede Shoes," and have them watch. If they reacted in any way, they would also be beaten, they testified.

"There's some uniquely damaging aspects to the abuse that everybody in that family has described," Corvin said. "It's almost as if – and I'm not suggesting that Mr. Cooper Sr. realized this – that if you want to design a regimen of abuse to do maximum damage to a boy or girl, he did it."

Cooper, 33, is on trial for five counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of
Ossama Haj-Hussein, 43; LeRoy Jernigan, 41; Timothy Barnwell, 34; Ricky High, 48; and Tariq Hussain, 52, over a 17-month period in 2006 and 2007.

Defense attorneys haven't denied that their client is responsible for the killings but have said that his mental condition at the time of the shootings was diminished based on years of his father beating him.

Corvin testified that the years of abuse resulted in Cooper developing complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be characterized by anger, isolation and a reluctance to trust others, as well as being preoccupied with the relationship to the abuser – either by taking on a protective role or seeking revenge.

In Cooper's case, that role was that of a protector, Corvin testified.

When police arrested Cooper's father on a charge of possession of a weapon by a felon prior to Cooper's Nov. 26, 2007, confession to police, he did anything he could to negotiate his father's release, Corvin said.

"That's a perfect example why you see individuals act in ways other than you expect. Mr. Cooper, for lack of a better term, sacrificed himself to get his father out of jail," he said.

Cooper also suffers from dissociative disorder, Corvin said, which could also help explain some of his actions at the times of the shootings. His memory of the crimes was sometimes inconsistent with witness statements and he sometimes couldn't understand why he did what he did.

Individually, Corvin said, the statements he made might not have meant much, but collectively, they showed a pattern consistent with dissociation, in which a person acts without full awareness of what he's doing.

"Dissociation isn't either you have it or you don't," he said. "It happens over a continuum."

In presenting its evidence, the state has painted Cooper as a calculated robber who never expressed remorse for the killings and knew exactly what he was doing at the time of the crimes.

He confessed to more than a dozen other robberies in which no one was shot or killed, they argued, and he exercised restraint in other areas of his life where conflicts existed.

But Corvin said Cooper usually tried to present himself as someone who was always in control and aware of what he was doing, even though the results of multiple examinations showed otherwise.

"It isn't that he doesn't possess emotions," Corvin said, adding that Cooper can't manage and cope with them effectively.

Even though he admitted to other robberies without incident, something in the five murder cases was different from the rest, he said.

"Something happened that was beyond his control, something that for whatever reason, with his state of mind, was stressful and spiraling out of control for him," Corvin said.

"Mr. Cooper has lived with one skill set for his entire life, which is if there is a problem, if you encounter difficulties, you either react as violently as necessary to remove your self from the situation, or whoever is causing you the problem will likely do the same to you," he said. "Period. End of story."