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New sentencing trial focuses on death-row murderer's childhood

Richard Michael Cooper, 50,  enters the courtroom Tuesday for jury selection for his new sentencing trial. An appeals court tossed Cooper’s original death sentence.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Richard Michael Cooper, 50, enters the courtroom Tuesday for jury selection for his new sentencing trial. An appeals court tossed Cooper’s original death sentence.

LARGO — One by one, the masked intruders awakened each of three young men early on June 18, 1982, as outside a raging storm muffled sounds and flooded their rural street.

The gunmen then marched each of the housemates into their small living room, bound their wrists behind their backs with duct tape and ordered them to lie face down on the floor.

"Then the carnage began," said prosecutor Jim Hellickson, who set that scene for jurors Wednesday at the resentencing trial of one of the killers.

A jury took just 48 minutes to find Richard Michael Cooper guilty of murdering Gary Petersen, 21; Bobby Martindale, 24; and Steven Fridella, 26. Cooper was sent to death row, but in 2011, a federal appeals court threw out his sentence because Cooper's counsel had not introduced evidence of the severe child abuse he suffered.

Now, a new jury in a Pinellas County District Court must recommend whether Cooper, 50, should spend life in prison, serving a minimum of 25 years, or die by lethal injection.

Soon after the killings, the only person to survive the home invasion unscathed — Fridella's son Christopher, who was 8 — called 911.

The premeditated cruelty of the crimes was among a half-dozen items Hellickson introduced as "aggravating factors." Others included the fact that Cooper, then 18 — along with co-defendants Terry Van Royal, 19; Jeffrey H. McCoy, 18; and Jason Dirk "J.D." Walton, 23 — killed the men in the commission of a robbery.

George Kendall, one of Cooper's lawyers, opened for the defense by agreeing that his client had been guilty of "a very revolting crime," but said that Cooper had been following Walton's lead.

Walton, who was older and had been overseas on a military tour, knew two of the victims and had pitched the idea to rob them for drugs and money.

Walton had his own, unrelated motives to ransack the home, Kendall argued. Robin Fridella, Steven Fridella's ex-wife and Walton's girlfriend, was afraid she might lose custody of Christopher and wanted Walton to recover certain incriminating evidence at the home.

Cooper, who knew nothing of Walton's motives, obeyed because Walton was a domineering male like Cooper's father had been, the attorney argued. Kendall told jurors the elder Cooper beat and psychologically tormented his son for years. The abuse started when he was a toddler and lasted well into adolescence.

"It helps explain — not excuse — why Richie did what he did," Kendall said. Kendall promised the jury they would hear from family members never contacted in his first trial and an expert on the impact of trauma.

The state opened its case with former Pinellas County Deputy Brian Pingor, who responded to the call. Now a Clearwater lawyer, Pingor described finding Christopher Fridella in his father's bedroom and putting a blanket over his head as he carried him past his father's slain body.

The trial continues today.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

New sentencing trial focuses on death-row murderer's childhood 02/26/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 11:03pm]
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