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Officer testifies in his own defense
BY DONNIE JOHNSTON
Former Culpeper town police officer Daniel Harmon–Wright, taking the stand in his own defense Friday, summed up his feelings about shooting and killing 54-year-old Patricia Ann Cook in a single statement.
“I don’t feel good about. I wish it didn’t happen. But it did happen and, given the circumstances, I would have done it again,” he said of the Feb. 9 shooting outside Epiphany Catholic School.
Harmon–Wright was the third and final defense witness. Closing arguments are scheduled Monday morning, with the jury expected to begin deliberations afterward.
The former officer, who was fired after being indicted in Cook’s death, testified Friday that he initially shot Cook twice in the school parking lot in an effort to free his left arm and hand from her Jeep Wrangler’s window, which he said she had rolled up and used to trap and drag him.
He then stated that he fired five more shots at the rear of Cook’s vehicle as she tried to drive off in order to do his duty as a police officer and protect the public.
“If I allowed her to continue down the road, she might strike and kill someone else,” Harmon–Wright told the jury. “She had just assaulted me.”
The ex-officer asserted that, as she attempted to drive off after being shot in the face and arm, Cook tried to sideswipe him with her vehicle.
“She made a sharp turn [out of the parking lot], was accelerating toward me and came within an arm’s distance,” Harmon–Wright said.
During cross-examination, special prosecutor Jim Fisher asked the defendant why he had made no mention of the sideswiping attempt to Virginia State Police Special Agent Richard Shivley during an interview videotaped about two hours after the incident.
And Fisher asked why Harmon–Wright had also failed to mention the “jerking motions” of the Jeep that he said Cook made to throw him from her running board while his hand was trapped.
Harmon–Wright said that he probably failed to do so because he was very emotional at the time he was questioned.
The defendant was emotional at times during his 40 minutes on the stand, choking back tears as he recalled the events of that day. At one point, defense attorney Daniel Hawes asked Judge Susan Whitlock for a pause so his client could collect himself. After about 20 seconds, the ex-officer wiped away tears and continued.
Harmon–Wright testified that after being dispatched to the school on a suspicious-person report, he walked up to Cook’s car and found her leaning back in her seat with her eyes closed.
“I don’t remember if she was asleep or awake,” he said, adding that the motor of her Jeep was running on that chilly February morning.
Harmon–Wright said when he asked Cook what she was doing on the private property, she replied: “I’m here to see a friend.”
He said that the interview was at first cordial, but changed when he asked for Cook’s identification. After she retrieved it, the defendant testified, “She held it in both hands close to her chest, turning her body at about a 45-degree angle” to allow the officer to see it.
He said he could not read the license from that distance because of the glare of the window glass, now halfway down, and reached his left hand inside to get it.
“She pulled back and screamed, ‘No!’ I was holding the license [as she pulled back],” Harmon–Wright said. “That pulled me farther into the vehicle.”
He testified that Cook then rolled up her window, trapping his arm “somewhere between my armpit and elbow.” Then, he said, she began to drive off.
“I was trying to work my arm out, but my coat was balling up,” the defendant said. “I stepped up on the running board and was pulling the handle to try to open her door. She was making jerking motions with her vehicle trying to shake me off.”
He said he yelled for her to stop, but Cook continued. Here, the ex-officer corroborated other witnesses who reported hearing him screaming.
“I was yelling as loud as I’ve ever yelled in my life,” he testified.
By then, he said he had worked his arm free, but his hand was trapped above the knuckle. He said he used his free hand to call for backup.
“At that point, what’s going through my mind is that she’s trying to kill me,” Harmon–Wright said.
He said he then pulled his weapon, put the end of the barrel on the window and yelled, “Stop or I’ll shoot!” three times.
Harmon–Wright testified that Cook screamed, “No!”
So he shot into the window, he said, the first shot “spidering” the glass and the second shattering it. When the glass broke, he said his hand was freed and he fell to the ground.
It was when he fell, he testified, that he perceived that Cook’s vehicle was about to sideswipe him.
Hawes asked Harmon–Wright if any of the events he described would have led to Cook’s arrest had she not been killed. He said she would have faced several charges, including abduction and assault on a police officer.
“If [as a police officer] you witness a crime, you have to [make an] arrest,” Harmon–Wright said. “It is illegal not to.”
Under cross-examination, the defendant admitted inconsistencies in Friday’s testimony and the state police videotaped interview. And he said he never saw a gun or a knife in Cook’s vehicle.
He testified that his intent was to “shoot until no more shooting was needed.”
According to previous testimony, the officer fired seven shots, striking her first in the face and arm from the side, then fatally wounding her in the back of her head and spine as he fired from behind.
The defendant said he stopped shooting after the vehicle was about 30 or 40 yards away because he didn’t want to injure an innocent bystander.
Earlier, State Police Special Agent John DeFilippi testified for the defense that DNA, including a hair, matching that of Harmon–Wright’s was located on the rubber seal of Cook’s shattered vehicle window.
After Harmon–Wright’s testimony, Judge Whitlock denied a defense motion to dismiss the case and set closing arguments for 10 a.m. Monday.
The case could go to the jury, which spent 15 minutes at the shooting scene Friday morning, as early as Monday afternoon.