The killing shocked and angered many in the small town of Culpeper, where there had not been a fatal police shooting since its law enforcement department was created in 1956. The case also raised questions about whether the five-year veteran should have been on the force.
Jurors could have found Harmon-Wright, 33, guilty of murder, but their verdict suggests that they gave some weight to his contention that he shot Cook out of fear for his safety and the public’s.
The jury will recommend a sentence Wednesday.
“Citizens found there was no self-defense in this case and that it was an unjustified killing,” special prosecutor Jim Fisher said. “There was enough evidence to raise a doubt about whether it was murder, so they obviously came to a compromise.”
Harmon-Wright’s attorney, Daniel L. Hawes, said an appeal of the verdict is “extremely likely.”
“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” Hawes said. “The verdict is inconsistent with the evidence.”
Jurors were asked to weigh conflicting accounts of what happened during the crucial seconds of the encounter. Prosecutors said the officer recklessly opened fire when he was not in danger, hitting Cook in the back of the head with one bullet and severing her spine with a second. Harmon-Wright argued that Cook used her car as a weapon and that he was in danger.
During the trial, Fisher said an official at a Catholic school in the town called police the morning of Feb. 9, 2012, to report a suspicious vehicle in the parking lot. When Harmon-Wright responded, he found Cook lying back in the driver’s seat of the Jeep with a sunshade pulled across the windshield, Fisher said.
Cook told Harmon-Wright that she was meeting a friend, and Harmon-Wright asked her for her driver’s license, Fisher said. As Harmon-Wright reached for it, a tug of war ensued. Cook, who was not armed, rolled the window up on the officer’s hand and began slowly driving away.
Fisher said Harmon-Wright managed to get his arm free and yelled, “Stop or I’ll shoot! Stop or I’ll shoot!” When Cook kept driving, Harmon-Wright fired two shots through the driver’s side window, hitting Cook in the face and arm, Fisher said.
Fisher said Cook then turned onto a public road and Harmon-Wright fired five more shots into the back of the Jeep, two of which killed her after piercing the vehicle’s headrest and seat back.
Harmon-Wright’s account of the key moments differed. In an interview with investigators played in court, he said his arm had become stuck in Cook’s window and she dragged him.