Culpeper jury recommends three-year sentence in slaying by police officer


Daniel Harmon-Wright is led back to jail following a hearing on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013 in the town of Culpeper, Va. He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and other charges. (Reza A. Marvashti/AP)
February 1, 2013

A Culpeper Circuit Court jury recommended a three-year sentence Friday for a former police officer who shot a 54-year-old homemaker to death after he was called to check on her vehicle last February.

The same jury this week convicted Daniel Harmon-Wright, 33, of voluntary manslaughter and other charges in the death of Culpeper resident Patricia Cook, who was unarmed and driving away from Harmon-Wright when she was shot. He faced a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.

The killing was the first fatal police shooting in the nearly six-decade history of Culpeper’s police force, and it roiled the town of 16,000. Some thought that authorities were slow to charge Harmon-Wright.

“I’m satisfied at this point,” special prosecutor Jim Fisher said. “But it’s a sad day. Nobody walked away feeling a winner. A woman lost her life, and a police officer lost his career.”

Daniel L. Hawes, Harmon-Wright’s attorney, said he was disappointed with the outcome.

“The fact is, he was the good guy doing his job,” Hawes said. “This was an instance of no good deed going unpunished.”

Before the jury began its deliberations Friday, Culpeper Circuit Court Judge Susan Whitlock denied a defense motion for a mistrial based on allegations of possible juror misconduct.

A dictionary was discovered in the jury room after the jury’s decision to convict Harmon-Wright with a page marked for the word “malice.” Jurors are barred from using reference materials not provided by the court during deliberations.

The concept of malice was key to the most serious charge that Harmon-Wright faced: murder. Jurors would have to have concluded that he acted with malice before they could have convicted him on that count.

Hawes argued that some jurors were clearly confused about terms pertaining to the charges, so his client was denied a fair trial. Fisher argued in court that jurors’ use of the dictionary actually benefited Harmon-Wright because they did not find him guilty of murder.

The jury was originally supposed to deliberate on a sentence Wednesday, but that was delayed as the court explored the allegations of juror misconduct.

During the trial, prosecutors said Harmon-Wright recklessly opened fire on Cook after he was called to the parking lot of a Culpeper Catholic school to check on the report of a suspicious vehicle.

Fisher said Harmon-Wright approached Cook’s Jeep, they wrestled over her driver’s license, she rolled up her window on his arm and she began driving away.

Harmon-Wright quickly got free and fired two shots into the driver’s-side window, striking Cook. Cook then turned on a public road, and Harmon-Wright fired five more shots into the back of her car, killing her with a bullet to the back of the head and a second that severed her spine.

Harmon-Wright offered a different account, saying that Cook had trapped his arm in her window and that he feared for his safety and the public’s when she began driving toward a busy area of Culpeper. Her view was blocked by a sunshade across her front window.

A judge is scheduled to sentence Harmon-Wright on April 10. The judge could decrease the jury’s recommended sentence but not increase it.

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