RSS feed of this blog

Jury recommends ex-officer serve three years

Harmon-Wright is escorted to jail after his sentencing hearing. / Photo by Suzanne Carr Rossi

UPDATE: (2:32 p.m.) A jury recommended Harmon-Wright serve a total of 36 months in jail, 12 months for each conviction. At a formal sentencing in April, the judge can reduce the sentence, but cannot increase it.

The judge ruled Friday morning that there was jury misconduct, but says that because it did not prejudice the defendant that there is NO mistrial. A sentencing hearing began at 9:30 and the jury began deliberating shortly before 11 a.m.

At the sentencing hearing, Harmon-Wright testified that he would have done the same thing again.

“I just don’t see any way out of what I did,” he said, explaining that he feared for his life.

He could be sentenced to serve anywhere from three to 25 years in prison on all of the convictions.

While the defense sought leniency and minimum jail time, the prosecution sought a long sentence because of the brutality of the crime and because of what they described as Harmon-Wright’s lack of remorse.

Harmon-Wright testified that the shooting and the trial have taken a huge toll on his family. His wife, Diane, and their 17-month-old son have moved to California. His wife offered emotional testimony at the hearing this morning on his behalf.

A friend who served with Harmon-Wright in the Marines in Iraq testified that the two spoke shortly after the shooting and that he believes Harmon-Wright acted properly. The friend testified that in Iraq, Harmon-Wright had opportunities to harm Iraqi soldiers and that no one would have known. Harmon-Wright, he said, never did so.

Brendan King of Fauquier County was a character witness for Daniel Harmon-Wright at Harmon-Wright’s sentencing hearing. King served in Iraq in 2003 with Daniel Harmon-Wright. /Photo by Suzanne Carr Rossi

The prosecution attempted to introduce evidence from Harmon-Wright’s military career that it believed would rebut that testimony, but the judge would not allow it.

Two dictionaries and a thesaurus brought into the jury room by the foreman became the subject of a court inquiry Wednesday that could lead to a mistrial in the case of a former Culpeper police officer convicted of manslaughter. 

Judge Susan Whitlock, who questioned each juror individually in open court Wednesday afternoon, will rule on a defense motion for a mistrial at 9 a.m. Friday.

An eight-woman, four-man jury found ex-officer Daniel Harmon–Wright guilty of voluntary manslaughter and two lesser felonies Tuesday in the death of Patricia Cook. The officer shot the 54-year-old Cook four times after responding to a call about a suspicious person in the Epiphany School parking lot on North East Street last Feb. 9.

After the jury delivered its verdict, three reference books were discovered in the empty jury room. The two dictionaries were bookmarked at a page on which there were definitions of the words “malice” and “malicious.”

Whitlock was informed and a hastily called court session was convened at 9:30 Wednesday morning. During that short session, the judge explained what had happened and gave both special prosecutor Jim Fisher and defense attorney Daniel Hawes two hours to research case law on the matter.

During a noon session, both attorneys agreed that a court inquiry was in order. Hawes further speculated as to other possible jury misconduct and questioned whether his client had received due process. He stopped short of asking for a mistrial at that point.

Whitlock then ordered that the jurors be kept separate when they arrived for what was scheduled to be the sentencing phase of the trial, set for 1 p.m.

Sheriff Scott Jenkins, whose staff was already stretched thin to provide court security in the high-profile trial, then pulled in 15 deputies from patrol and other areas to accommodate the judge’s wishes.

For 90 minutes, the jurors were questioned individually about the dictionaries and the thesaurus, and whether they had used other reference materials or discussed the case with anyone.

All agreed that the dictionaries and thesaurus had been brought in because the legal definition of malice was in question. Several said the jury instructions were vague or confusing about the meaning of the word.

Several jurors said they also looked up the definition of malicious. Two recalled that the word “lawfully” was not fully understood. No one, however, remembered actually looking up that word.

The jury forewoman admitted that she had brought in the reference books because of the confusion.

Harmon–Wright, 33, an Iraq War veteran who had been on the force for five years, said he shot Cook in self-defense and to protect the public. He said Cook rolled up the window of her Jeep Wrangler on his arm when he reached inside to get her license and began to drive away, then tried to sideswipe him when he managed to free himself.

But the office manager of the school and a handyman working nearby both said they watched the incident unfold and never saw the officer’s arm trapped in the vehicle. They also testified that Harmon–Wright chased the Wrangler down the street, firing from behind.

He was fired from the force after being indicted.

While Hawes probed Wednesday into the possibility that the jurors might have been corrupted by outside influences, Fisher asked each juror whether getting a dictionary definition of malice led to conviction on the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder.

“Did this cause you to give the benefit of the doubt to the defendant?” Fisher asked each person.

Each juror who said she initially had been confused said that it had.

In moving for a mistrial, Hawes said that he felt that the jury had been “totally confused” by the jury instructions.

“They didn’t understand that malice was an element to be proven,” Hawes argued. “There is no doubt that my client has not received a fair trial.”

Fisher argued that looking up the definitions created “no prejudice or influence” for the jury.

“[Clearing up that] doubt led to a conviction on a lesser charge,” he told the judge.

Whitlock ordered that the court reporter provide a written transcript of the individual jurors’ answers by this morning so she could study them before making a decision.

After court, Fisher would not comment on whether a mistrial would prohibit him from retrying Harmon–Wright.

“I won’t speculate on that at this point,” he said.

If a mistrial is not declared, the jury will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. Friday to begin the sentencing phase of the trial. Harmon–Wright could receive a total of up to 25 years in prison for the three felony convictions.

Donnie Johnston: