Former Culpeper police officer guilty of manslaughter
A former Culpeper police officer was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and other charges Tuesday for killing a 54-year-old homemaker during a routine suspicious vehicle check that spiraled out of control last February.
A Culpeper Circuit Court jury deliberated for about nine hours before returning the verdict in the trial of Daniel Harmon-Wright, who fired seven shots into Patricia Cook’s Jeep Wrangler as she attempted to drive away from the then-officer. He faces a maximum of 25 years in prison.
The killing shocked and angered many in the small town of Culpeper, which had not seen a fatal police shooting since its department was created in 1956. The case also raised questions about whether the five-year veteran should have been on the force.
Jurors could have found Harmon-Wright guilty of murder, but their finding indicated that they gave some weight to his contention that he shot Cook out of fear for his own safety and that of the public.
“Citizens found there was no self defense in this case and that it was an unjustified killing,” said special prosecutor Jim Fisher. “There was enough evidence to raise a doubt about whether it was murder, so they obviously came to a compromise.”
Jurors were asked to choose between conflicting accounts of what happened in the crucial seconds of Harmon-Wright and Cook’s encounter. Prosecutors said the officer recklessly opened fire when he was not in danger, hitting Cook in the back of the head with one bullet and severing her spine with a second. Harmon-Wright argued that Cook used her car as a weapon and that he was in danger.
During the trial, Fisher said an official at a Culpeper Catholic school called police on the morning of Feb. 9, 2012, to report a suspicious vehicle in the parking lot. When Harmon-Wright responded, Fisher said he found Cook lying back in the driver’s seat of the Jeep with a sun shade pulled across the windshield.
Cook told Harmon-Wright she was meeting a friend, and Harmon-Wright asked her for her driver’s license, Fisher said. But as Harmon-Wright reached for it, a tug of war ensued. Cook rolled the window up on the officer’s hand and began slowly driving away. She was unarmed.
Fisher said Harmon-Wright managed to get his arm free and yelled “Stop or I’ll shoot! Stop or I’ll shoot!” When Cook kept driving, Fisher said Harmon-Wright fired two shoots through the driver’s side window, striking Cook in the face and arm.
Fisher said Cook then turned onto a public road and Harmon-Wright fired five more shots into the back of the Jeep, two of which killed her after piercing her headrest and the back of her seat.
Harmon-Wright’s telling of the key moments differed. In an interview with investigators played in court, he said his arm had become stuck in Cook’s window and she dragged him. He said he fired two shots into the driver’s side glass to free his arm.
Harmon-Wright’s attorney said he fired five more times at the back of her car because she was driving toward a busy area of Culpeper with the sun shade blocking her view.
But that version of events was contradicted by two eyewitnesses — an official at the Catholic school and a handyman, who said they never saw Harmon-Wright’s arm trapped in Cook’s window during the encounter.
Harmon-Wright was also found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and unlawful shooting into an occupied vehicle. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Wednesday.
The trial largely stuck to the events of Feb. 9 and delved little into the backgrounds of those involved.
Harmon-Wright was hired by the Culpeper Police Department despite objections of superiors who said his excessive drinking and attitude made him a poor choice, according to charging documents.
He also had been disciplined in 2011 for forcing his way inside a home and brandishing his weapon at a man without probable cause, according to charging documents.
Bethany Sullivan, Harmon-Wright’s mother and a former administrative assistant to the Culpeper police chief, is scheduled to stand trial in April for allegedly forging her son’s entrance exam and one of his annual reviews.
Gary Cook, Patricia’s husband, filed a $5 million civil suit against Harmon-Wright, but he died last September before it could go to trial. Relatives of Cook still plan to pursue the lawsuit, but a trial date has not been set.
Some in Culpeper felt authorities were too slow to bring charges in the case and started a Justice for Patricia Cook Facebook page in the months after her killing. Culpeper Mayor Calvin L. Coleman said in a statement that he hoped those wounds could heal.
“The men and women of the Culpeper Police Department are hard working and should not be judged by the actions of a former officer,” Coleman said.
Harmon-Wright’s attorney did not immediately return a call for comment.