CLEARWATER — Thirty years ago, a jury sentenced Richard Michael Cooper to death over his role in a brutal triple murder.
Cooper, 50, has been serving time on death row ever since.
Now he is back in court 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.
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" — presents the 6th Judicial Court of Pinellas County with an unusual circumstance. A jury composed of people unfamiliar with the case must now recommend whether Cooper should serve life, with no possibility of parole for 25 years, or reinstate his death sentence.
Opening statements are expected as early as today.
Cooper's guilt is not in dispute. The appeals court describes what happened this way: On the morning of June 18, 1982, Cooper and three others — Jason Dirk Walton, Terry Van Royal and Jeffrey Hartwell McCoy — drove to Fridella's Largo residence looking for cocaine or money.
They parked a distance away and, wearing ski masks, crept toward the home at 6351 143rd Ave. Among them they carried a .357 Magnum revolver, a .22 rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun.
They had originally planned to rob the men inside while they slept. But someone recognized one of the intruders, and the plan changed.
Fridella, Martindale and Petersen were bound with duct tape and forced to lie on the floor. A cellmate later testified that Cooper told him Fridella begged for his life, and with compelling reason: his 8-year-old son, Christopher Fridella, was locked in the bathroom.
Cooper, then 18, confessed to shooting Fridella twice with the shotgun. The robbery netted a knife, a clock, a small set of scales and $2 in cash. Cooper's lawyers called no witnesses in his defense, arguing that he was under the spell of Walton, whom Cooper had described as "a Charles Manson-type figure."
Cooper's conviction and sentence were upheld on appeal. In 2011, the federal 11th Circuit again affirmed the conviction but tossed out the death sentence because of evidence the first jury never heard. That included frequent beatings at the hands of his hard-drinking father, Phillip "Socky" Cooper, who earned his nickname as a Golden Gloves boxing champion.
The elder Cooper beat his children with "boards, switches, belts and horse whips," leaving welts all over their bodies, sometimes for offenses as small as not knowing their multiplication tables.
The abuse was so constant, a school principal, fearing he was making things worse, "stopped calling their father when Cooper would get in trouble because Cooper would show up at school beaten and with bruises all over him," the court said.
Cooper's stepbrother and sister also said no one had contacted them to testify at the first trial.
On Tuesday, Cooper appeared in court wearing a dark suit, sitting with his three defense lawyers. As jurors waited in the hall, attorneys sparred over what Judge Keith Meyer would tell them when they came in.
At issue was language Meyer proposed adding to his jury instructions.
Initially, the judge suggested that for jurors to recommend the death penalty prosecutors must prove "beyond a reasonable doubt that death should be imposed." After much debate among the attorneys, the judge ultimately removed "beyond a reasonable doubt" from his instructions.
Walton and Van Royal were also sentenced to death in the murders. Van Royal's sentence was reversed in 1987 and he was given three life sentences. Walton remains on death row. McCoy is serving a life sentence.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.