Local News

Murder suspect's mental defense questioned

Posted March 31, 2010 2:32 p.m. EDT
Updated April 1, 2010 12:00 p.m. EDT

— Prosecutors on Wednesday cross-examined a forensic psychiatrist about whether a man facing the death penalty knew what he was doing when he shot and killed several people over a 17-month period in 2006 and 2007.

Dr. George Corvin testified that Samuel James Cooper thought he had no other choice but to commit the offenses he's accused of because of post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative disorder stemming from years of physical abuse by his father.  (Read Corvin's forensic psychiatric evaluation of Cooper.)

Cooper, 33, faces five counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Ossama Haj-Hussein, 43; LeRoy Jernigan, 41; Timothy Barnwell, 34; Ricky High, 48; and Tariq Hussain, 52.

His defense team doesn't deny he killed the victims but says his mental state is the issue at trial. The state says Cooper was deliberate and that his actions were premeditated and calculated so that his victims could not identify him to police.

Wake County Assistant District Attorney Jeff Cruden on Wednesday presented a report from forensic psychiatrist Dr. Nicole Wolfe, an expert witness for the state, who found that although Cooper did have a mental disorder, there was no indication he suffered from anything that would cause him to "lose his ability to reason accurately" at the time of the crimes.

"These crimes were carried out very carefully," Corvin read from Wolfe's report. "There are numerous indicators of planning that Mr. Cooper knew the wrongfulness of his behaviors. Mr. Cooper went to great lengths to conceal the evidence that could link him to these crimes."

Corvin defended his findings, saying that Wolfe did not spend enough time with Cooper, whom he described as always wants to project that he's in control and knows what he's doing. She interviewed him once for three hours. Corvin said he spent 36 hours with the defendant over 17 occasions.

"It was not ideal. He's highly defended," Corvin said. "He's hiding his trauma history from her and minimizing it. He's hiding, or dodging answering questions about how vivid his ability to recall really is."

Corvin testified Tuesday that Cooper had difficulty remembering exactly why he did some of the things he confessed to police and that he was likely unaware of what he was doing when he killed his victims.

The diagnosed disorders coupled together, he said, can keep a person under stress from thinking clearly and can cause out-of-mind experiences that he or she might not remember later.

Witnesses said Cooper committed the crimes during a series of robberies, but defense attorneys pointed out he also committed to a dozen other robberies in which no one was ever harmed.

"Something different," had to happen during those five encounters to cause Cooper to feel like he were not in control of the situations, Corvin said, and Cooper reacted the only way he knew how.

"You don't have to be a psychiatrist to know this. If a guy is raised from three months of age being exposed to and taught violence, that is how you deal with life," he said Tuesday. "And you have the mindset that if you don’t, the guy facing you is going to react to you violently."