Local News

Witness: Social services failed Cooper growing up

Posted April 12, 2010 5:34 p.m. EDT
Updated April 13, 2010 12:27 p.m. EDT

— Social workers investigating abuse in the childhood home of Samuel James Cooper failed to intervene to stop the abuse, a defense witness testified Monday in the 18th day of Cooper's capital murder trial.

"This was a disaster. This was just an egregious overlooking of their duty to protect Sammy, to protect this family," said Daniel Beerman, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Last week, a jury found Cooper guilty on five counts of first-degree murder in a series of fatal shootings in 2006 and 2007.

Defense attorneys trying to spare him from the death penalty say Cooper was not in a normal state of mind at the time of the crimes because he is the product of an abusive upbringing in which his father severely beat him and his siblings several times a week.

By the time social services got involved, Cooper was no longer living at the home and did not have the same opportunity for counseling that his siblings had, defense attorneys argue.

Beerman said that social workers investigated the home on multiple occasions over a period of years, but never took any actions that could have minimized the damage the abuse might have caused and never considered removing the children from the home.

"They lost a tremendous opportunity to have some impact on the children and begin some process where there might be some healing and a positive direction for the family," he said.

Beerman said it was likely that the children and Cooper's mother minimized the extent of the abuse whenever they did admit it to officials because of "an informal rule" to keep quiet or else face the consequences.

"The people in the family who are supposed to protect you are your parents," Beerman said. "What the children end up doing is being in the role of protecting their parents against the secret. They're also protecting themselves, (thinking) 'If I spill the beans on my parents, something bad is going to happen.'"

Jurors also heard from Cooper's younger brother, Ray Cooper, who, like several other family members, recounted years of abuse at their father's hands.

"It was hell growing up. Most kids look at home as a place of relief," he said. "For us, home was the last place we wanted to go."

Ray Cooper said he referred to himself and his brother as "the broomstick boys,” because they were often beaten with a broomstick.

He and his other siblings would also have to sit and watch their brother and each other get beaten with a belt while their father sang to them "Blue Suede Shoes." If they cried, they too were beaten, he said.

"You want to cry, I'll give you something to cry about," Ray Cooper recalled his father saying.

Prosecutors don't deny abuse in the Cooper home but believe it has been exaggerated by family members because Samuel Cooper is facing the death penalty.

They argue that the defendant was not delusional at the time of the shootings and that he was calculated and deliberate in the crimes.

They questioned Ray Cooper about his motives for testifying, pointing out that he decided to do so only after watching his mother's and sister's earlier testimony on the Internet.

Ray Cooper said that, despite interviews with social workers when he was a child, he was telling the truth Monday. He was scared of his father back then and what he might have done if he told the truth, he said.

"I think there were a lot of people that knew things were going on and didn't help us, and they just chose not to," Ray Cooper said. "They chose to just turn away from it. I'm talking about friends, family, social services. They just picked us up and dropped us back down and left us there."