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Opening statements begin in death penalty case resentencing

LARGO — A jury has been selected and opening statements are scheduled to start at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the resentencing of Richard Michael Cooper, who has been on death row for 30 years after being convicted in a triple murder.

A federal appeals court threw out Cooper's death sentence in 2011 after finding that a jury should have heard evidence of abuse Cooper suffered as a child during the sentencing phase of his trial.

It took a day and a half to seat a jury to hear the evidence on what sentence Cooper should receive for his role in the 1982 deaths of Steven Fridella, Bobby Martindale and Gary Petersen — remembered since as the "High Point murders."

Cooper's guilt is not in dispute. 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, according to court records.

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. Cooper, then 18, confessed to shooting Fridella twice with the shotgun. Cooper's attorneys 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.

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

Opening statements begin in death penalty case resentencing 02/26/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 4:19pm]
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