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Cooper defense continues focus on childhood abuse

Posted April 13, 2010 12:21 p.m. EDT
Updated April 13, 2010 5:23 p.m. EDT

— Defense attorneys on Tuesday continued to focus on Samuel Cooper's abusive childhood, calling to testify an expert specializing in the long-term effects of men abused in childhood.

"Sammy Cooper is a very damaged individual and his childhood – the trauma and the abuse that he experienced in childhood – to me, very understandably led to the psychological and relational damage that he exhibits," clinical psychologist Matthew Mendel said.

Cooper, 33, was convicted last week of shooting and killing five men in a series of shootings in 2006 and 2007.

Defense attorneys argue that at the time of the crimes, their client was in a delusional state, absent of any emotions and did not understand the consequences of his actions because of years "bizarre and ritualized" abuse at the hands of his father.

The state, in presenting its case, has painted Cooper as a cold-blooded killer who knew his crimes were wrong, consciously chose to shoot his victims, then went to great lengths to hide evidence that could link him to the murders.

Supporting the findings of a forensic psychiatrist who testified earlier in the trial, Mendel testified that Cooper suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative order, which defense attorneys have argued were factors in the crimes.

"I'm completely convinced that the abuse in Sammy's childhood was absolutely essentially connected to him as an adult, including his behavior at the time of the murders," Mendel said during cross-examination.

"I'm not so sure that I would reach a conclusion that that necessarily meant a diminished capacity in a legal sense," he continued. "I have some reservations."

Cooper is facing the death penalty, and his attorneys are now trying to convince jurors to spare him of that sentence for a life prison term.

Witnesses have testified that Cooper was first beaten by his father at 3 months old and that the abuse continued and escalated as he grew into a teenager.

At around age 13, Cooper stopped crying during the beatings, Mendel said, and stopped "feeling fear or fearing pain."

"Stopping feeling pain was, I believe, a very necessary survival strategy within that family," he testified.

By that time, he had already begun displaying symptoms of dissociation, or a separation of emotions and behaviors from conscious awareness.

Elizabeth Hornthal Worley, Cooper's civics teacher during the 1992 fall semester, also testified Monday that Cooper was a polite and obedient student who was "unusually disconnected" with her and other students.

"It was my first year as a high school teacher," Worley said. "Quite frankly, he wasn't yelling and screaming and causing me a lot of trouble, and I just thought, 'Well, he's quiet and shy. He'll warm up, and we'll move forward.'"

Cooper, however, left school in the spring semester after being arrested and sentenced to a program for troubled youth.

Looking back on the situation now, Worley said, given her experience and counseling education, she would have been more concerned.

"I would have made more effort to refer him to a counselor. I would have made more effort to try to engage, but I did the best I could with what I knew," she said. "Looking here now, I would have done more."