Does punishment fit the crime in fatal shooting by police officer? - Star Exponent: News

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Does punishment fit the crime in fatal shooting by police officer?

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Posted: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 5:54 am, Tue Feb 5, 2013.

The former Culpeper Police Officer found guilty of manslaughter and other charges last week in the Feb. 9, 2012 shooting death of a local homemaker will spend a maximum of three years in jail for the unlawful killing.

 Some in the community feels Daniel Harmon-Wright, 33, got off lightly considering the final outcome for victim Patricia Ann Cook - shot in her cheek, arm, head and spine as she drove away on a public street.

  It was not an easy case to hear or decide, and yet many are left wondering does the suggested punishment fit the crime? Culpeper County Circuit Court Judge Susan Whitlock can lessen the punishment when she decides on final sentencing April 10. So what was the jury thinking?

  "It was a very difficult situation, a difficult case - we did the best we could," said juror Joanne Depue, a retired licensed clinical psychologist, in a brief phone interview with the Star-Exponent Monday.

  She declined further comment, and others on the 12-member jury did not immediately return requests for comment.

  The Culpeper County jury of eight women and four men spent three hours deliberating Harmon-Wright's recommended sentence after finding him guilty of voluntary manslaughter (one to 10 years), unlawfully shooting at an occupied vehicle (one to five years) and unlawfully shooting at an occupied vehicle causing death (involuntary manslaughter carrying a one to 10 year sentence).

  The jury recommended 12 months jail time on each felony count. Per sentencing guidelines, the defendant faced up to 25 years behind bars.

  University of Virginia law professor Darryl Brown said judges typically follow a jury's sentencing recommendation. He said it is not uncommon for manslaughter charges to receive "well below" the 10-year maximum, mentioning a 2004 case in Charlottesville involving "a fairly violent homicide."

  "It was a multiple stabbing death, a bar fight, outside of a college area here at U.Va.," Brown said. "The student was convicted of manslaughter and received a three-year sentence."

  The professor said juries often consider factors like prior convictions and whether the victim did anything to provoke the killing in deciding sentences. Brown said the judge, in deciding Harmon-Wright's ultimate punishment, can decide to impose the sentences concurrently — meaning the former police officer will spend a year in jail minus time served - or consecutively meaning Harmon-Wright would go to jail for three years.

  Special prosecutor Jim Fisher, Fauquier County Commonwealth's Attorney, asked the jury to sentence on the high end of the guidelines due to several "aggravating factors" in the case including 54-year-old Pat Cook's husband, Gary, dying of natural causes just seven months after his wife's untimely passing; Harmon-Wright's lack of remorse for what he did; Mrs. Cook's relative innocence and the brutality of the crimes.

  "This was a real human being who lost her life," the prosecutor told the jury, saying Cook was "apparently a lovely lady" while passing around photographs of her from her life just prior to sentencing deliberations. "She was a real member of your community," Fisher said, noting that all of the aforementioned factors "push these offenses on the high end of the felony range."

  Harmon-Wright was a five-year veteran of the Culpeper PD the day he encountered Cook in a Catholic school parking lot a few blocks from the heart of downtown Culpeper. He had responded to the scene on a report of a suspicious person and found the woman sitting in her Jeep with her head back.

  Following an altercation, Cook attempted to leave the scene in her vehicle when she was shot dead by Harmon-Wright, who claimed she trapped his arm in the driver's side window and then tried to kill or hurt him with her Jeep.

  The victim was shot in the back of the head as she drove away, her windshield obstructed with a sun visor.

  Harmon-Wright said he was protecting the public in doing so.

  "He hated having to do it," said defense attorney Daniel Hawes prior to sentencing. "But it was necessary. He did what he felt he had to do in his position as a police officer. He would act to protect the public again."

  A former U.S. Marine who did a tour in Iraq, Harmon-Wright spoke tearfully about that fateful day just prior to sentencing. His wife and military buddy also gave emotional testimony just prior to jury deliberations on punishment.

  No one except the prosecutor spoke on Mrs. Cook's behalf. A retired cosmetologist originally from Alton, Ill., she loved children, crafting and cooking for her church. She had no children of her own.

  Asked by reporters following sentencing if he felt Harmon-Wright's punishment was light, Fisher said the recommended incarceration sends a message that what the officer did was wrongful behavior.

  "It was an abandonment of the role of police officer entirely and I think it was important for the jury to send that message and I think they did," Fisher said.

 He added, "Really, this is a sad day. A victim has lost their life. A former police officer has lost their career and his liberty for a period of time. Hopefully at the juncture ... the town of Culpeper and the community of Culpeper can begin the healing process."

  As one would imagine, citizens from far and near have lit up social media weighing in on the case and sentence. As one poster on Facebook pointed out, the public will never hear Cook's side of what happened.

  "We will NEVER know the whole story. What we do know is a woman is dead, a man ruined his own life and a town of people is left shaking their head at our justice system. It's a sad story not only for those involved in this horrible mess, but for everyone in the town of Culpeper."

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