CLEARWATER — A jury on Tuesday recommended that Richard Michael Cooper, 50, on death row for 30 years, be sentenced to life in prison instead.
Cooper was a participant in a brutal shotgun triple murder in 1982 and has been on death row ever since.
He was back in court last week and this week with a chance to save his life after a federal appeals court threw out his death sentence in 2011. The court found that evidence of the abuse Cooper suffered as a child should have been heard by a jury.
"This is a huge relief for many people, from the defense side," said George Kendall, who led a team of pro bono defense lawyers representing Cooper, "and I truly hope a relief for the victims' families."
Prosecutor Jim Hellickson declined to comment.
The resentencing of a key player in the 1982 deaths of Steven Fridella, Bobby Martindale and Gary Petersen — remembered since as the "High Point murders" — presented the 6th Judicial Court of Pinellas County with an unusual circumstance. A jury composed of people unfamiliar with the case would have to hear the evidence all over again to issue a sentencing recommendation. The two choices: life in prison or a reinstatement of his death sentence.
Cooper appeared stoic throughout the trial, showing little expression.
Six jurors voted for death, six for life. Florida is one of the few states in the nation wherein only a simple majority is needed to pass on a recommendation of death. A tie goes to the defendant.
The vote culminated five days of arguments and testimony, during which Cooper's guilt was not in question. The defense packed its case with Cooper's relatives not heard from at his first trial. A half-sister, Tracie Cooper, called the Cooper household "the Brady Bunch, but with guns and knives."
A clinical psychologist drew a narrative arc from the abuse Cooper suffered at the hands of his father and an older brother to his slow development, poor impulse control and susceptibility to older males.
The dominant figure Cooper's lawyers blame is Jason Dirk "J.D." Walton, who at 23 was the group's acknowledged ringleader. Shortly before midnight, Cooper and three other Citrus County men — Walton, Terry Van Royal, 19, and Jeffrey McCoy, 18 — drove from Inverness to Largo during a powerful storm, arriving near 6351 143rd Ave. early June 18, 1982.
Unlike his accomplices, Walton knew two of the victims, Fridella and Petersen, and had bad blood with both. According to defense lawyers, Walton was romantically involved with Robin Fridella, Steven Fridella's ex-wife and Petersen's sister.
According to a defense theory of the case, Walton could have set up the break-in to help Robin Fridella, who had a custody hearing coming up.
"There were photos in her (former) husband's possession that might not cast her in a great light," Kendall told the jury during his closing statement. "It's not a stretch to suggest that J.D. Walton said on this rainy night, 'Let's drive (to Largo) for two hours.' They were clearly being led by someone older."
The home invasion turned into a triple murder after one of the victims recognized Walton, despite his ski mask.
Prosecutors placed the blame squarely on Cooper himself.
"There are three reasons that Mr. Cooper sits in this courtroom," Assistant State Attorney Glenn Martin said Tuesday to kick off his closing argument.
"Execution. Execution. Execution. He took the lives of three human beings."
Martin contested the view that Cooper was led by anyone to commit multiple murders.
"What you have to decide," Martin said, "is whether on that particular day the influence of Mr. Walton was sufficient to destroy his moral compass. And I submit to you that it wasn't."
Judge Keith Meyer is not bound by the jury's recommendation but must give it "great weight." The judge said he will issue his sentence at a later date.
Van Royal is serving three consecutive life sentences for his role in the crimes. Walton is on death row.
McCoy, the youngest of the group and Walton's brother, is serving a life sentence.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.