The original version of this story was edited
A former Culpeper Police officer faces up to 25 years in prison for killing local housewife Patricia Ann Cook, 54, nearly a year ago on East Street.
A 12-member jury Tuesday found Daniel Harmon-Wright, 33, guilty of voluntary manslaughter, shooting into an occupied vehicle and shooting into an occupied vehicle resulting in death following about nine hours of deliberation Monday and Tuesday.
"I don't see this as a categorical statement with respect to law enforcement," said special prosecutor Jim Fisher, Fauquier County Commonwealth's Attorney, in a press conference following the verdict. "I think this was a unique situation with a unique defendant, who stepped out of line in a very aggressive fashion and broke the rules so the system has held him accountable."
A dramatic silence filled the courtroom in Culpeper County Circuit Court when word came in around 4:15 p.m. that a verdict had been reached. Harmon-Wright, prior to taking his seat beside attorney Daniel Hawes, kissed his wife on the mouth. The mother of his baby son attended all six days of the trial, beginning last Tuesday along with at least nine other family members.
Harmon-Wright, a former U.S. Marine, who served a tour in Iraq, covered his face with his hands as the verdict was read, and one female juror wiped away tears. The former Culpeper Police Officer was then handcuffed and escorted by three Culpeper County Sheriff's bailiffs to the Culpeper County Jail, adjacent to the courthouse.
His young wife cried openly after the verdict was read.
Mrs. Cook's brother, John Weigler, of New Jersey, said the family was pleased with the verdict. He too attended every day of the trial involving the violent death of his big sister, shot in the back of the head and the spine following an altercation with Harmon-Wright Feb. 9, 2012 that began in a Catholic school parking lot.
" It vindicates her," Weigler said of the guilty verdict. "What happened on that day should not have happened. There were a lot of things that were done incorrectly. I am just pleased with the verdict and I'd like to move on from here. It's been pretty horrible. We have been without Pat for 11 months now."
He reached out to the defendant's side in saying he hoped the results of the trial would not have any negative impact on Harmon-Wright's wife or son.
"I hope churches in the area minister to them and it's going to be difficult - it's been difficult for us," Weigler said.
Harmon-Wright was on duty as a Culpeper Police Officer the day he fired his department-issued Glock seven times at Cook, who had parked her Jeep in the school parking lot for unknown reasons. The school called police to report a suspicious person, and Harmon-Wright responded, having just made a transaction at the gun shop up the street.
A special investigative grand jury indicted the police officer on murder and other charges May 29, 2012, and he was fired within weeks from the Culpeper Police Department after being on administrative leave with pay for four months.
Harmon-Wright pleaded not guilty and claimed self defense and defense of the public at trial.
Fisher said Tuesday the evidence did not support self-defense.
" I felt like it was unjustified from the very beginning; the only question was what grade of homicide was it. So, I am going to ask the court for a significant penalty that reinforces the message that this was wrong," Fisher said. "You heard the defendant at the end of his testimony say he would do the exact same thing over again, so I feel it would be important to reinforce the message that that's the wrong attitude."
The special prosecutor said he was very satisfied with the jury's verdict. Between the investigative grand jury and trial jury, 23 Culpeper County citizens passed judgment in the case, Fisher said.
"F rom the beginning, I hoped this would be a very transparent citizen-based process," he said. "I think at the end I can proudly say that's happened."
Fisher said he would ponder an appropriate sentencing overnight before the jury reconvenes Wednesday at 1 p.m. to make its recommendation on punishment.
"It's going to be important for the court to send a message in this case," he said, adding that prosecuting a law enforcement officer for murder is certainly a rare occurrence. "I wouldn't want to go through it again. But the law is the law — nobody is above the law, nobody is beneath the law and I think it's important that people be held accountable equally."
A civil suit against Harmon-Wright is pending with the family seeking $5.35 million in damages. The suit could be expanded to include the current and past police chiefs for allegedly negligently hiring Harmon-Wright in August 2006 in spite of objections from command staff related to alcohol abuse.
The area around the public entrance to the courthouse bustled with activity Tuesday with passersby and pedestrians enjoying the 70-degree weather and wanting to know if a verdict had yet been reached in the high-profile killing that rocked small-town Culpeper to its core.
One man driving by in a medical pharmacy vehicle offered his opinion on the matter.
"I think he might get life," he said of the ex-police officer. "I think he deserves it."
The town of Culpeper issued statements in the case within half and hour of a verdict being reached.
"The trial is over. The jury has spoken. The whole situation is a tragedy that gripped, and in some cases, divided our community," said Culpeper Mayor Chip Coleman, thanking the Virginia State Police for its initial investigation of the shooting that found Harmon-Wright's arm was trapped in the driver's side window of Cook's vehicle, contrary to jury findings.
Coleman said the system worked, acknowledging the work of the grand jury, jury and special prosecutor.
"Now it is time for the healing process," the mayor said in his prepared statement. "The men and women of the Culpeper Police Department are hardworking and should not be judged by the actions of a former officer."
Culpeper Police Chief Chris Jenkins, in the statement, said the outcome of the trial does not change his department's mission.
"We are still devoted to providing the best possible services to our community and in the best way possible," the chief said. "This was a tragedy and a first for our community and this agency. We are all saddened by this event. We hurt, too."
Jenkins, a Culpeper native, thanked all the citizens "who showed their support during this trying time."
"The men and women of your police department stand ready to answer the call," he said.