LARGO — Richard Cooper will not be put to death for his role in a 1982 triple shooting.
A judge on Friday upheld a jury's recommendation in March that Cooper's death sentence be commuted to life in prison. Cooper was 18 when he fired a shotgun four times, resulting in the deaths of three Largo men.
Though the new sentence holds out the possibility of parole, Cooper, now 50, will likely die in prison.
His lawyers spent part of Friday arguing that Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Keith Meyer should issue the three life sentences concurrently, or at the same time. That would mean that — in theory, at least — Cooper could have soon walked free.
Meyer rejected that request and ordered the sentences to run consecutively, meaning Cooper will not be eligible for parole until he is at least 93.
"We're relieved that this case now is finally over," said George Kendall, the lead attorney on Cooper's pro bono team of lawyers. "A life sentence has been imposed, and we hope that people can move on."
For Cooper's sake, that is still a better outcome than the three death sentences he received in 1984. In 2011, a federal appeals court vacated those sentences, saying the jury should have heard evidence of the abuse Cooper suffered as a child. That included a near-daily schedule of beatings at the hands of his father and the abandonment of a mother who was fleeing the assaults herself.
"His life was awash in unrelenting violence, not by unknown people but by his father and brother," Kendall said in court Friday.
As a result of the abuse, Cooper began to "self-medicate" with alcohol and drugs from age 11, Kendall said, which led to a diminished intellectual and social capacity.
The appeals court cited testimony that Cooper's IQ had been measured at 75. Such a man, his lawyers said, could not have planned the execution-style slayings of Steven Fridella, 26; Bobby Martindale, 24; and Gary Petersen, 21.
Instead, Kendall said, Cooper had been "a follower, carefully chosen" by Jason Dirk "J.D." Walton, 23, an Army veteran and the acknowledged ringleader of the four Citrus County men charged in the drug-related murders, which occurred after a robbery gone bad. (Walton is the only one of the group who remains on death row.)
Cooper's mostly good record in prison, coupled with his doting relationships with nieces and nephews, add up to concurrent sentences that "could leave the prison door slightly ajar," Kendall argued.
Countering the image of a rehabilitated inmate who could be considered for parole, Assistant State Attorney Glenn Martin hit on the facts and the law.
Giving Cooper only one life sentence when three lives were taken, he said, would be akin to saying "the other two (deaths) weren't worth punishing."
As for Cooper mentoring his niece, Martin said: "He can do that from prison."
For the first time in this resentencing trial, the court heard from Cooper.
Wearing blue prison scrubs and reading from a single sheet of paper, he apologized for the crimes in a halting, almost staccato delivery.
The defendant said he had "no excuse" and had spent the past 30 years wondering how he could have participated in a robbery that resulted in three murders.
"Was my abuse a factor? Yes. Were alcohol and drugs a factor? Yes. But the one thing that has brought me the most shame is my cowardice."
Cooper also apologized to the families of the victims, starting with Fridella's, and at that point his voice seemed briefly tinged with emotion.
"There are no words to express the sorrow I feel," he said. "I take full responsibility for my cowardice that caused the death of your father, your brother, your son. . . . I am sorry."
In rendering his decision, Meyer told Cooper he believed the apology was heartfelt.
However, he said, "I can't say it's my place to put you in a position to be released potentially today."
The reason, Meyer said, was the gravity of the crimes.
"Though it was one episode, it was three living, breathing people whose lives were snuffed out that day," the judge said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.