Local News

Prosecutor: Wreck that killed ballerina was no accident

Posted February 15, 2011 1:28 p.m. EST
Updated February 24, 2011 9:45 a.m. EST

— After a three-month delay, the trial for a Raleigh doctor charged with murder in a wreck that killed a ballerina is underway. Opening statements began Tuesday afternoon, and the state called an eyewitness to the stand who described the "unbelievable" impact of the crash.

Raymond Dwight Cook, a former facial plastic surgeon, is charged with second-degree murder, driving while impaired and felony death by vehicle in the Sept. 11, 2009 wreck that killed Elena Bright Shapiro, 20.

In his opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Adam Moyers gave jurors a glimpse of what Shapiro was like. She was a ballerina with the Carolina Ballet, in the midst of rehearsals for "Swan Lake."

"She's beautiful, she's talented, she's full of promise," Moyers said. "On Sept. 11, the bright light that was Elena Shapiro was snuffed out forever."

He said Shapiro left her house to go to a housewarming party at the home of another dancer. As she pulled out onto Strickland Road, Cook, driving well over the 45 mph speed limit, crashed into the back of her Hyundai.

Moyers said the impact of the crash thrust the rear tire of Shapiro's car into the passenger seat. He said the wreck was no accident.

"He chose to drink. He chose to drive after drinking," he said.

Roger Smith Jr., one of Cook's attorneys, said in his opening statement that evidence shows Cook was drinking and was speeding, but that doesn't make him guilty of murder. He said Cook immediately got out of his vehicle after the crash to begin administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Shapiro.

Smith said Cook had been golfing at a local country club that day and then went to Piper's Tavern to meet a friend.

The state's first witness, Melissa Cassario, testified that she saw the crash. She said she was behind Cook and watched his black Mercedes "slam" into Shapiro's car. Cassario said Cook was traveling faster than she had ever seen anyone drive on a city street.

"The sound of the crash, the sparks, the impact, it was unbelievable," Cassario said.

Before the opening statements Tuesday, Cook's lawyers submitted a series of motions to Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith. They asked to suppress the chemical analysis of Cook's blood, but Smith withheld his ruling until the evidence is introduced at trial.

The defense asked that a radar detector found in Cook's car and autopsy photos be excluded from evidence. Smith denied both motions.

Cook's lawyers also asked to limit testimony from a witness who is expected to testify that Cook was kissing a woman outside the tavern where he was reportedly drinking before the accident. They asked that testimony of an expert witness expected to testify that Cook was traveling at least 75 mph be excluded. Smith withheld his ruling on both motions until the witnesses are called to testify.

Smith withheld rulings on two other motions, protecting the defendant's Miranda rights and suppressing any statements made by the defendant at the scene or the hospital, until the trial begins. 

The trial was supposed to begin in November, but a "bad indictment" prompted a judge to delay it.

Wake County Assistant District Attorney Jeff Cruden filed a motion to continue the case, saying the "bad indictment" failed to mention the words "with malice aforethought." That phrase is necessary in a second-degree murder charge.

The judge continued Cook's case so it could go back to the grand jury.

Prosecutors offered Cook a plea deal in May, but he and his lawyer never agreed to it. Since the wreck, he surrendered his medical license and completed a stint at a rehab clinic.

Formerly employed by UNC Hospitals, but authorized only to practice at WakeMed in Raleigh, Cook practiced facial plastic surgery and otolaryngology, a specialty in treating ear, nose, throat, head and neck disorders.