CULPEPER -- A Culpeper County jury of eight women and four men opted Friday for the lowest end of punishment in recommending a sentence of three years for a former Culpeper town police officer who fatally shot an unarmed housewife nearly a year ago.
Daniel Harmon-Wright heard the recommended sentence Friday afternoon in Culpeper County Circuit Court after tear-filled testimony from him, his wife and a fellow Iraqi War veteran, followed by three hours of jury deliberation in the Feb. 9 killing of Patricia Ann Cook, of Culpeper.
Earlier Friday, Judge Susan Whitlock denied a defense motion for a mistrial entered Wednesday after two dictionaries and a thesaurus were found in the jury room.
Whitlock said use of the reference books to look up "malice" ultimately resulted in a verdict prejudicial to the defense.
Harmon-Wright faced as many as 25 years behind bars after the jury found him guilty Tuesday of voluntary manslaughter, shooting at an occupied vehicle and involuntary manslaughter.
Harmon-Wright, 33, was on duty as a five-year member of the Culpeper Police Department the day he encountered Cook, 54, sitting in her Jeep parked in a school parking lot in downtown Culpeper. He shot the woman in the back of the head and spine as she attempted to drive off following a verbal altercation.
"He abandoned his position as a police officer. He lost it and he slaughtered this woman," said special prosecutor Jim Fisher, Fauquier County commonwealth’s attorney, in closing remarks prior to sentencing deliberations.
Fisher emphasized "the relative innocence of the victim" and lack of remorse in arguing "aggravating factors" of the shooting, asking the jury to fix punishment on the higher end of the scale. The prosecutor said Cook’s only apparent crime was violating a no-trespassing sign posted in the school lot.
"She was attempting to leave ... obviously, she was not doing it to the satisfaction of Officer Wright," said Fisher, calling the shooting "vicious" and "brutal."
It remains unknown why Cook, a retired cosmetologist, was parked at the school that day. Harmon-Wright previously testified that when he approached her vehicle — after responding to a call for a suspicious vehicle — that he observed a female "leaned back" with her head back. Upon further questioning, he described Cook as having "odd" behavior.
Fisher used that statement to hammer home a point prior to sentencing.
"[Patricia Cook] was emotionally fragile, mentally fragile," he said, his voice getting louder. "The law is supposed to protect the most fragile among us — not slaughter them."
Harmon-Wright claimed he shot Cook after she rolled up her window on his hand and used her vehicle to try to kill him. Eyewitnesses testified that Harmon-Wright’s hand was not trapped when he fired the fatal shots standing in the street behind Cook’s departing Jeep.
"I was so afraid that I was going to die," he said on the stand Friday. "I didn’t see any other way out of what I did."
Harmon-Wright and the defense maintained throughout his eight-day trial that he was justified because he was acting to protect the public after Cook pulled off into the wrong side of the road, her windshield obstructed by a sun screen.
Asked prior to sentencing how he got into law enforcement, Harmon-Wright, a former U.S. Marine who did a tour in Iraq post 9-11, said he wanted to continue to serve after he got out of the military.
"I missed the service, but had enough of the war," he said.
Harmon-Wright described his colleagues at the police department as dedicated and professional, saying it was "a thrill" to serve the community as part of the force. He added that after the events of Feb. 9 he would never consider a job in law enforcement again.
As a convicted felon, Harmon-Wright would be ineligible to work in law enforcement or own a firearm.
His lawyer said he would consider appealing the conviction.
"That day was absolutely horrible," Harmon-Wright, crying, told the jury prior to sentencing. "I am depressed all the time."
He said he spent "every waking second of every day" reflecting on Cook’s death before sitting down next to his attorney, heaving with sobs and covering his face with his hands.
Harmon-Wright’s friend from the Marines, Brendon King, took the stand prior to sentencing, as well, saying the defendant "is an outstanding Marine," a calm, consummate professional in battle. King said Harmon-Wright was "heartbroken" after killing Cook.
"He was emotionally distraught by what happened. He was in shock. During the war, we were exposed to some bad stuff, but never had to kill someone," King said.
The jury also heard Friday from Harmon-Wright’s wife, Dyanne Estes Wright, appearing emotionally broken and inconsolable, her testimony at times indecipherable. She cried the entire time on the stand saying her husband "has just been punished so much from this event."
"We lost everything we worked so hard for," Dyanne Wright said.
She said she and their 17-month-old son had been living away from Harmon-Wright since September with family in California.
"It’s been really, really hard seeing our son be punished," she said.
Prosecutors on Friday submitted photos of Cook from her life. The Culpeper woman reportedly loved young people though she had no children of her own. Cook was active in the children’s ministry at Culpeper United Methodist Church and an avid crafter. She and her husband, Gary, lived in a small apartment outside town. Gary Cook died of natural causes in the apartment seven months after his wife was killed.
"This was a real human being who lost her life, a real member of your community," Fisher told the jury, holding up the photos of Cook.
Defense attorney Daniel Hawes called the killing of Cook "a horrible incident — horrible for everybody." Hawes said his client believed then and still believes that he did the right thing in shooting her.
"He would act to protect the public again," Hawes said. "He made a quick decision and he can’t find anything wrong with that decision today. What was it about her bizarre behavior that day that caused him to make that decision?"
Hawes said he would "almost certainly" ask the judge to reduce Harmon-Wright’s sentence at the sentencing hearing, scheduled for April 10.