Local News

Cooper defense asks for compassion, understanding

Posted April 15, 2010 9:32 a.m. EDT
Updated April 16, 2010 10:33 a.m. EDT

— Defense attorneys appealed to jurors Thursday not to sentence their client, Samuel James Cooper, to death for a series of Wake County murders that prosecutors argued were committed by a cold-blooded serial killer.

"This is not the abuse excuse that the state might want to suggest that it is," Cooper's attorney, Lisa Miles, told jurors. "It's not an excuse at all. It is a story about what happens to a child who grows up knowing nothing from his parents but fear and violence. Mom taught him fear. Dad taught him violence."

Cooper, 33, was convicted last week of first-degree murder in the 2006 and 2007 shooting deaths of Ossama Haj-Hussein, 43, LeRoy Jernigan, 41, Timothy Barnwell, 34, Ricky High, 48, and Tariq Hussain, 52.

Jurors will begin deliberating Friday morning after Superior Court Judge Henry Hight instructs them about how sentencing law applies to Cooper's case.

Following his arrest in a November 2007 bank robbery, Cooper confessed to the killings, and ballistics evidence from a gun involved in that robbery linked him to the five cases.

The trial was never about whether he committed the crimes but rather his mental state at the time.

His defense attorneys argued that he was in a delusional state, absent of any emotions and did not understand the consequences of his actions because of years of "bizarre and ritualized" abuse at the hands of a father who never told showed affection and a mother who let the violence happen.

"Your choices are life or death. If you give him death, you'll complete the job (Samuel Cooper) Sr. started 33 years ago," defense attorney Michael Howell said. "Or, you could give him something he rarely – if ever – had, compassion."

The abuse Cooper endured was so severe, defense attorney Stephen Freedman said, that it "literally broke his mind," forcing him to separate himself emotionally from the violence.

Prosecutors don't deny Cooper was abused as a child but believe the testimony was embellished by his family members because he faces the death penalty.

"Was it bad? Yes. I'm not trying to say it wasn't," Wake County Assistant District Attorney Jeff Cruden told jurors. "But to the extent they want to sell it to you, I'd ask you to be very cautious about that."

Cruden argued that Cooper is a serial killer who shot his victims in cold blood. He might have some mental issues, he said, but none of them affected his ability to form a specific intent to kill.

"If this case and these crimes aren't deserving of the death penalty, then what is?" Cruden asked jurors, as photos behind him showed each of the victims as they were found at the crime scenes.

In the case of Tariq Hussain, who was shot Oct. 14, 2007, at Bobby's Grocery on Garner Road, Cooper walked into the store with his gun in hand, ready to fire. As Hussain lay dying on the floor, Cooper stepped over him and took money from his register.

"He's just picking it up, like he's shopping in a grocery store, with no pity, no sympathy, no remorse," Cruden said. "He hardly looked down at the man there, taking what he wants because that's what it's about."

But Cooper is not the worst of killers, Howell said. He's not a stalker, a sexual pervert or a torturer, but "a mentally ill robber that sometimes overreacted to unreal or misperceived events."

"He took no pleasure in killing anybody. He got no enjoyment out of it," Howell said.

Defense attorneys characterized Cooper not only as a victim of not only abuse but also of a system in which social services failed him growing up by not intervening until he was older and out of the home.

Miles, who cried during her closing argument, said Cooper had a few moments of "pure joy" running track as a child, but that joy was overshadowed by years of beatings and threats.

"We can't help 9-year-old Sammy. It's too late. We can't bring back the five lost men. It's too late," Miles said. "All we can do now is choose how to respond."

"In choosing life, you in no way diminish the humanity of these five very well-loved men. In choosing compassion, you do not forgive Sammy for these sorrowful deaths," she continued.

"Instead, you show your understanding that he was shaped and molded into something he didn't have to be and into something he didn't want to be – that he is not the worst of the worst."