The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Former Culpeper police officer set for trial
BY DONNIE JOHNSTON
Impaneling an impartial jury could be a challenge in the murder trial of former police officer Daniel Harmon–Wright, which begins Tuesday in Culpeper County Circuit Court.
Circuit Court officials will not say how many Culpeper County residents have been summoned for the jury pool, but, given the amount of newspaper, television and radio publicity associated with the case, the number figures to be high.
Harmon–Wright, a 33-year-old former Culpeper town police officer, is charged in the Feb. 9 shooting death of 54-year-old Patricia Ann Cook in an incident that took place at the Epiphany School parking lot on North East Street. Cook had no criminal record and was not armed, according to previous court testimony.
In addition to murder, the Iraq War veteran, who spent five years on the town police force, is also charged with malicious shooting into an occupied vehicle, malicious shooting into an occupied vehicle resulting in a death, and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.
Not only has this case generated tremendous media attention, it has also been a hotly debated subject on Internet blogs, especially between the time of the incident and Harmon–Wright’s indictment and arrest on May 29.
Hundreds also signed a “Justice for Patricia Cook” petition in late April and early May during a public attempt to speed up special prosecutor Jim Fisher’s movement of the case.
Given the public’s exposure to the case, Fisher, Fauquier County’s commonwealth’s attorney, has asked Judge Susan Whitlock to question jurors in panels of 22. Some experts believe it will take at least two of the 10 days set aside for the trial to empanel a jury.
It is customary in a high-profile trial that 13 jurors be selected with one being considered an alternate. This is to prevent a mistrial or delay in case one juror gets sick, dies or, for whatever reason, is removed from the panel. The alternate is randomly chosen before testimony begins, but is not revealed until the case goes to the jury.
Last summer, Judge Whitlock denied the defense’s request for a change of venue.
Daniel Hawes, a member of the Virginia Legal Defense who is representing Harmon–Wright, has maintained from the outset that his client felt threatened because Cook tried to roll up her vehicle window, trapping Harmon–Wright’s arm and then driving off.
How he plans to make that defense in court remains a mystery since, through Friday, he has not subpoenaed a single witness, according to the case file.
Fisher, on the other hand, has 29 witnesses under subpoena, including five children from the Catholic preschool where the parking-lot shooting began.
Key among those witnesses is Kristopher Buchele, the painter who claims to have watched the entire shooting incident unfold from a second-story window in the house where he was working.
Buchele, who said he went to the window after hearing yelling below, has insisted that the officer’s hand was not inside the Jeep Wrangler window (which had hand-cranked glass) but rather outside.
A number of town police officers are also scheduled to testify, as is an instructor from the criminal justice academy where Harmon–Wright trained before joining the Culpeper force.
Among other quirks of this complex case, Fisher has requested that Judge Whitlock allow the jury to, at some point, adjourn to the crime scene for clarity’s sake.
The special prosecutor has also requested that Hawes not be allowed to refer to Patricia Cook as “a fleeing felon,” which the defense attorney did during a bond hearing last summer.
The incident began about 9:45 a.m. on Feb. 9, 2012, when Officer Harmon–Wright, also know as Dan Sullivan (his adopted name), was dispatched to Epiphany School following a report of a suspicious person.
There, in the school parking lot, he made contact with Cook, who, for reasons that have not yet been explained, was sitting in her Jeep.
At some point during the incident, a verbal altercation between Cook and Harmon–Wright began. According to Buchele’s statement, made less than two hours after the shooting, Cook then rolled up her window and started to exit the parking lot and drive south on East Street.
At that point, according to Buchele, Officer Harmon–Wright twice yelled, “Stop or I’ll shoot!”
According to Fisher’s court statement, the officer then fired twice through the glass, striking Cook in the head both times.
The special prosecutor said, however, that these shots were not fatal. As the vehicle pulled into the street, Harmon–Wright is accused of stepping into the street and firing five more times at the rear of the Jeep.
One of those shots struck Cook in the back of the head and another severed her spine and entered her heart and lungs, Fisher told the court. The Jeep inched its way up East Street and came to rest against a utility pole.
Fisher was named as special prosecutor two days later. On April 2, he asked that a special investigative grand jury be empanelled to interview witnesses, review evidence and determine if charges should be filed.
On May 28, that grand jury not only indicted Harmon–Wright, but also his mother, Bethany Sullivan, who had been police Chief Dan Boring’s private secretary at the time her son was hired.
Sullivan stands accused of altering documents in some manner during Harmon–Wright’s hiring process. Her case will not be heard until after her son’s murder trial.
Harmon–Wright was arrested at his Gainesville home on May 29 and later released on $100,000 bond.
He was fired from his town police position on June 21 and now lives in Orange, where his mother resides, according to court documents.
On May 14, Gary D. Cook, Patricia Cook’s 62-year-old husband, filed a $3.5 million wrongful death suit against Harmon–Wright.
Gary Cook, however, was found dead in his Friendship Heights apartment on Sept. 4. A state medical examiner ruled that he died of natural causes. The suit, however, continues with Patricia Cook’s brother as plaintiff.
Because of interest in the high-profile case, Judge Whitlock has set aside a special section in the small courtroom for reporters. Also, to avoid distractions, the judge has ordered that no one will be allowed to enter after she is seated or exit before she calls a recess. Earlier this month, Whitlock banned all cellphones and similar devices from her courtroom.
This will be Whitlock’s first murder trial since assuming her judgeship in Virginia’s 16th Judicial District in July.