A federal appeals court has overturned the death sentence meted out to Richard Cooper, one of four masked men who fatally shot three people in 1982, in the Highpoint area of Clearwater.
Cooper might have been sentenced to life instead, had jurors at his trial heard more about his violent childhood, the U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit, said in a 68-page decision released Thursday.
Cooper, now 47, was convicted in 1984 in the deaths of Steven Fridella, Gary Petersen and Bobby Martindale. The men’s hands were tied behind their backs with duct-tape before they were killed with shotguns.
Fridella’s 8-year-old son was put in a closet before the slayings.
In a confession, Cooper told detectives he, Terry Van Royal, J.D. Walton, and Jeff McCoy had planned to make a trip from Hernando County to rob the victims of money, cocaine, and other drugs, and then tape the victims and leave.
However, the plan went awry that night in June 18, 1982, when not much of value was found, Cooper told investigators. “We’re going to waste them,” Walton reportedly claimed. The three men in the house were shot.
Walton and Cooper were sentenced to death. Van Royal’s death sentence was overturned in 1987. McCoy was sentenced to life.
Cooper’s attorneys filed an appeal with the Florida Supreme Court, but that court upheld his death sentence in 1986.
Cooper’s attorneys then asked for a hearing before the same judge who sentenced him to death. Cooper’s basic claim was that his defense attorneys, Ky Koch and Ronnie Crider, didn’t present enough evidence during the penalty phase of the murder trial to show he should receive a life sentence because of a horrendous childhood.
At this court hearing, which lasted eight days, siblings who did not testify at his trial spoke at length of Cooper’s troubled past, and, in particular, the violent physical abuse he suffered at his father’s hands.
After the hearing, however, the judge denied Cooper’s claim that his lawyers did not present enough evidence to show he should be sentenced to life. Among other things, the judge said, what Cooper’s siblings testified during the hearing mirrored what his mother said during the penalty phase of the trial.
Another appeal was filed, in vain, with the Florida Supreme Court, which didn’t believe Koch and Crider were ineffective. Their decisions were “entirely strategically reasonable,” the court ruled.
Cooper’s attorneys then filed a petition in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. That court found Crider and Koch could have looked into Cooper’s background more thoroughly, but if they had, the outcome would not necessarily have been different.
Then the issue was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit, in what was the fifth attempt to get the death sentence overturned.
In its decision, this court agreed with Cooper’s contention that his attorneys did a poor job researching his background.
Koch and Crider only talked to Cooper, his mother and a clinical psychologist who examined Cooper. And the psychologist didn’t testify because the number of shots Cooper told him were fired was different from the number he told police, and it was feared that discrepancy would have been elicited during cross-examination, and put Cooper in a poor light.
That left only Cooper’s mother.
“The jury heard nothing about the abuse inflicted on Cooper by his father and brother, hearing only of the abuse Cooper’s father inflicted on Cooper’s mother,” the court said in its decision.
Cooper’s brother, sister, elementary school principal, and Cooper’s ex-girlfriend – all of whom said they would have testified as to the abuse Cooper suffered as a child – were never called. Cooper’s mother’s testimony during sentencing “did not begin to describe the horrible abuse testified to by Cooper’s brother and sister,” the court said.
“Notably absent from the attorneys’ testimony was any explanation as to why they did not contact Cooper’s siblings, whether they attempted to contact them at all, or if they were contacted, what the results were,” the decision says.
In addition, jurors heard nothing of Cooper’s beginning to use drugs and alcohol at the age of 11 to escape his brother’s and father’s abuse; his abandonment by his mother for short stretches of time; his 7th grade education; his depression, and his propensity to be dominated by older men, the court said.
It could not be determined what step prosecutors, who argued for the death penalty, will do next. A call to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office was not returned.