Tuesday, May 22, 2018
News Roundup

Jury didn't see eye-to-eye on triple murderer during trial, or after

CLEARWATER — The jurors retired to a conference room down the hall and began to weigh their options.

Would they recommend that Richard Cooper, who participated in the shotgun slayings of three men more than 30 years ago, remain on death row? Or would they factor in new information about his horrific childhood and advise that his sentence be changed to life in prison?

Within the first 20 minutes — before they could take a preliminary tally — one man had withdrawn as jury foreman and battle lines had hardened.

Their bumpy ride concludes today when a judge will make a final decision.

The stakes could not be higher for Cooper, 50, who had fired a shotgun early on June 18, 1982 — part of a robbery resulting in the deaths of Steven Fridella, 26; Bobby Martindale, 24; and Gary Petersen, 21.

Cooper, who was 18 at the time, argued that he and two other men had acted under the spell of ringleader Jason "J.D." Walton. A jury in 1984 found him guilty on three counts of first-degree murder.

He would have stayed on death row if a federal appeals court in 2011 had not vacated his death sentence, sending him to be retried in Pinellas County.

The reason? The original jury never heard of the extensive physical and psychological abuse Cooper suffered as a child, the court said.

His resentencing trial began in late February and quickly went awry over problems with the jury. One male juror was dismissed for repeatedly falling asleep during prosecutor Jim Hellickson's opening statement.

Another issue arose with juror Benjamin Rose. According to two fellow jurors, Rose had been encouraging his peers to extend the trial in order to collect more jury pay.

Rose stoically accepted an admonishment by Judge Keith Meyer. He later told the Tampa Bay Times he was only being sarcastic because other jurors were acting like they couldn't wait to go home.

"Most of the people couldn't give a damn since the trial, which they are paid to attend, interferes with their self-absorbed existences," said Rose, 44, a former librarian who said he now works as a freelance researcher. "What is it to them that a man might die after suffering through a childhood from the bowels of hell?"

The jurors were tasked with one duty: Determine whether the abuse warranted changing Cooper's death sentence to life in prison. Rose recommended life.

Michael Gregg, a trucker, disagrees with Rose's characterization.

"We were not there to negotiate with each other," said Gregg, 56, who voted for death. "We were there to give our opinion on the evidence we heard as clearly as possible, and that's what we did."

If there's one thing Rose and Gregg can agree on, it's this: Not much negotiation took place.

One juror said she believed Cooper should die for his crimes and nothing would change her mind, both men said.

Gregg was chosen jury foreman at the start of deliberations. His term lasted about 20 minutes, when, by his own account, he began shouting at a ship captain who favored a life sentence.

Gregg stepped down.

Rose acknowledged not answering a question posed to prospective jurors — a requested show of hands by anyone who had suffered abuse as a child.

As a boy, Rose said, he had been molested by a camp counselor and suffered "physical, psychological and emotional abuse" by other adults growing up.

He also said he has both Asperger's and Tourette's syndromes and has been bullied. Asked why he did not raise his hand during jury selection, Rose said that "abuse" was not defined in the question.

Moreover, he said, "It was none of their damned business."

Sympathetic to Cooper, he began making a point of smiling at the defendant when he entered the courtroom.

"I felt like someone needed to smile at him and let him know, 'Brother, this is all going to be okay,' " Rose said.

By the third vote, the jury was still deadlocked, 6-6. Since a tie goes to the defendant, Cooper could be resentenced to life if Meyer accepts the jury's recommendation. The judge will render his decision today.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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