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Ex-cop’s murder case goes to jury

RELATED: See more crime news from the Fredericksburg region

UPDATE:  The jury failed to reach a verdict Monday in the murder trial of former Culpeper police officer Daniel Harmon–Wright. It has recessed for the day and will resume deliberations Tuesday morning.

BY DONNIE JOHNSTON

The case of Daniel Harmon–Wright, whose fate could be decided as early as Monday, seems to boil down to one question.

Will a jury take the word of an ordinary citizen over that of a police officer, even one accused of murder?

On Friday, Harmon–Wright, the former Culpeper officer on trial in the Feb. 9, 2012, death of 54-year-old Patricia Ann Cook, testified that he shot the unarmed woman because she dragged him with her vehicle and tried to sideswipe him.

He then admitted that he stepped into the street and, holding his pistol with both hands, took careful aim and fired off five more rounds, two of which were fatal.

Anne Schuyler, office manager at Epiphany School, directly contradicted that statement. She testified on Thursday that she had a clear view of the incident from about 75 feet away and that Harmon–Wright’s hand was never trapped in Cook’s Jeep window and that the officer was never dragged.

Schuyler, who initially summoned police to the school annex parking lot on North East Street, also told the court that Cook, who had already been shot in the face and arm at the time, never tried to run down the officer with her vehicle.

Schuyler’s testimony was corroborated in great part by handyman Kris Buchele, who testified that he witnessed most of the incident from the window of an adjacent apartment house.

It was Schuyler, however, who saw it all and had the best view of the fatal incident. In the end, jurors will likely have to decide whether to believe her or the trained ex-police officer who, while on the stand stated, “Given the same set of circumstances, I would have done it again.”

Closing arguments in this high-profile case that had stirred public emotion for nearly a year are scheduled to begin this morning at 10. The jury, now comprising nine women and five men (two alternates will be eliminated), could get the case after the lunch recess.

The trial, which began Tuesday, has gone much faster that defense attorney Daniel Hawes expected. Last summer, he asked that 10 court days be set aside.

Special prosecutor Jim Fisher called only 12 of 29 subpoenaed witnesses to the stand and Hawes called only three, including the defendant.

A key ruling in the case prevented either side from delving into Cook’s past, including reports that she had made visits to the main building of the Epiphany School on other occasions. Five middle-school students who were originally subpoenaed were never called to testify.

Fisher also elected to refrain from bringing up Harmon–Wright’s past, which included allegations of alcohol abuse while in the military.

The fact that Harmon–Wright had been disciplined a month before the shooting for using excessive force did come out, however.

In a video interview conducted by Virginia State Police Investigator Richard Shivley and played for the jury, the officer referred to the reprimand and worried that the Cook shooting would make another negative impact on his law-enforcement career.

The trial produced little information about the case that has not already been made public by the media. It did, however, dispel a persistent rumor that Cook had forced her way into the school annex that fateful morning.

And, according to testimony, Harmon–Wright had never met Cook before the incident in the school parking lot.

Still a mystery is why Cook had pulled into the school lot shortly before 9:30 that chilly February morning and placed a sun shield, the type typically used to keep vehicle interiors cool on hot summer days, all the way across her windshield.

Harmon–Wright testified that Cook told him that she was waiting for someone and former town police detective Sue Stewardson testified that there were packed boxes in Cook’s Jeep Wrangler that seemed to indicate that “she may have been moving.”

Who was Cook waiting for? That question was not answered in the trial; Judge Susan Whitlock ruled that only evidence directly associated with the shooting incident would be admissible.

Why Cook decided to pull into the Epiphany parking lot and sit with her head back, her eyes closed and her car running may forever remain a mystery. And no one will ever know why she decided to drive away after the officer asked for her driver’s license.

What is at issue and what jurors will have to decide is whether Harmon–Wright was acting lawfully when he killed Cook. More specifically, did he have the right to shoot the woman, who had no prior criminal record and who, according to the testimony of the defendant, had no gun or knife, in the back?

According to testimony, the fatal shots, one to the back of the head and another that severed Cook’s spine and penetrated her heart, came from the rear as she, already wounded, was driving away.

While on the stand, Harmon–Wright told how he stepped into the street and, holding his service weapon in both hands, took careful aim at the Jeep that was “drifting” south on North East Street.

The jury may also take into consideration Hawes’ statement to them during jury selection that police officer carry guns to kill people.

So, in essence, the jury will be asked to decide whether the members believe Schuyler, who testified that Harmon–Wright ran after the moving car, jumped onto the running board and fired the two initial shots through the window, or the former officer, who said his hand was trapped and that he shot to free himself.

Harmon–Wright further testified that he fired those five final shots—including the fatal bullets—to protect the public.

The answers and a verdict may come before Monday is over.

While Harmon–Wright’s wife and two other family members sat in the gallery all week, his mother Bethany Sullivan, has been absent.

Sullivan, who worked for the police department, is charged with falsifying documents that helped her son get hired five years ago.

Both were indicted last may by a special investigative grand jury. She is scheduled to be tried later.

Cook’s brother, John Weigler, was also in court all week. He has taken over a civil suit filed against Harmon–Wright last May by Cook’s husband, who died in September.

Donnie Johnston:

djohnston@freelancestar.com

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/newsdesk/2013/01/27/will-culpeper-jury-believe-ex-officer-or-witness/