Cooper

FLORIDA – Opening statements begin in death penalty case resentencing – Richard Michael Cooper


february 26, 2014 (tampabay)

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.

Paula Cooper, Youngest Person Sentenced to Death in Indiana, To Be Released From Prison


 

Paula Cooper, who was 15 years old at the time of her crime, and the youngest person ever sentenced to death in Indiana, will be released from prison on June 17, twenty-seven years after her conviction for the murder of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke. Her case received international attention, sparking a campaign that led to the commutation of her death sentence to 60 years in prison. An appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court received over 2 million signatures from around the world. Pope John Paul II asked that Cooper’s sentence be reduced. Bill Pelke, the grandson of Ruth Pelke, forgave and befriended Cooper and wrote a book, Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing, about his experience with the case.

Pelke also founded Journey of Hope, an organization led by murder victims’ family members that conducts speaking tours on alternatives to the death penalty, with an emphasis on compassion and forgiveness. He has advocated for Cooper’s release and recently reflected, “I knew my grandmother would not want [her] grandfather to have to go through what [my] grandfather had to go through, to see a granddaughter that he loved strapped to the electric chair and have volts of electricity put to her until she was dead.” In a 2004 interview with the Indianapolis Star, Cooper expressed remorse for her crime, saying, “Everybody has a responsibility to do right or wrong, and if you do wrong, you should be punished. Rehabilitation comes from you. If you’re not ready to be rehabilitated, you won’t be.” During her time in prison, Cooper earned a college degree, trained assistance dogs, and tutored other prisoners. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court held that states could not mandate the death penalty for those under the age of 16 at the time of their crime, and in 2005, the Court barred the death penalty for all juvenile offenders.

(T. Evans, “Ind. woman sentenced to death at 16 to leave prison,” USA Today, June 16, 2013; M. Edge, “Murder Victim’s Grandson Helps Free Assailant,” KTVA, May 23, 2013). See Juveniles and Victims.