CLEARWATER — During the worst years of a miserable life, Richard Cooper shared a single-wide trailer in Arizona with at least five older half-siblings, a violent, alcoholic father and a mother who enabled beatings almost every day by snitching on the kids when he came home.
Those were just a few of the horrors that, years later, according to Cooper's lawyers, led him to commit a grisly triple murder in Largo. Jurors who heard the stories Friday at a resentencing hearing for Cooper will determine whether he still should face the death penalty for those crimes.
Cooper, who has been on Florida's death row for 30 years, has acknowledged firing the shotgun blasts that killed Steven Fridella, Bobby Martindale and Gary Petersen. The June 18, 1982, "High Point murders" also sent three of his accomplices to death row or life in prison. At issue is whether his gruesome upbringing should be a mitigating factor.
Three siblings and a former neighbor told jurors that Phillip Cooper beat his children with closed fists, straps and whips, and that he cracked their heads together, shoved them into plates of food they didn't eat, forbade friends or extracurricular activities, and poked them in the face with his partially amputated index finger.
The siblings also testified about the father beating a daughter with a strap until she vomited, flogging young Richard Cooper with a horse whip because he couldn't find something in the tack shed and shattering the cheekbone of his mother, Juanita Kokx.
An older brother, Donald Cooper, admitted Friday to pummeling Richard frequently and burning him with a magnifying glass despite also suffering beatings.
The children lived on pinto beans one week and popcorn the next. They bathed in irrigation ditches and went to school with bruises and strap marks, said Peggy Jo Kirby, Cooper's sister.
After a while, Richard Cooper started complying with whatever his father and brother told him to do.
"You can only take beatings like that for so long, and then you just want to get out of it," said Kirby, 52.
Prosecutor Jim Hellickson asked her to confirm that she and Richard Cooper and the other siblings loved their father and grieved when he died in 1980 of lung cancer.
Kirby agreed, but added: "He was our father. You could have a dog and beat it to death — it's still going to love you."
How Cooper coped with the abuse factors prominently into the defense shaped by a pro bono team of out-of-state lawyers. Forensic consultant David Lisak, a prominent clinical psychologist who also testified Friday, said that years of trauma blunts the development of the brain's frontal lobe.
"When a child is dominated by an abusive father and then receives similar treatment by an older brother, that child's ability to make decisions is significantly compromised," Lisak said.
Assistant State Attorney Glenn Martin challenged that view.
"Are you telling this jury that he had no choice but to kill each of three people?" Martin said. "He could not just run out of there?"
Lisak responded: "Choice is more complicated than that."
The proceeding resumes Monday.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.