A former Culpeper police officer was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and other charges Tuesday for killing a 54-year-old homemaker during a routine suspicious-vehicle check that spiraled out of control last February.
A Culpeper Circuit Court jury deliberated for about nine hours before returning the verdict in the trial of Daniel Harmon-Wright, who fired seven shots into Patricia Cook’s Jeep Wrangler when she tried to drive away from the then-officer. He faces a maximum of 25 years in prison.
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.
He said he fired two shots into the driver’s-side glass to free his arm.
His attorney said he fired five more times at the back of her car because she was driving toward a busy area of Culpeper with the sunshade blocking her view.
Two eyewitnesses contradicted that version of events: an official at the Catholic school and a handyman, who said they never saw Harmon-Wright’s arm trapped in Cook’s window.
Harmon-Wright was also found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and unlawful shooting into an occupied vehicle.
The trial largely stuck to the events of Feb. 9 and delved little into the backgrounds of those involved.
Despite Cook’s explanation to Harmon-Wright that she was meeting a friend, it remains unclear what she was doing in the parking lot. One witness testified that the Jeep was filled with boxes as if she was moving.
Harmon-Wright was hired by the Culpeper Police Department despite the objections of superiors, who said his excessive drinking and attitude made him a poor choice, according to charging documents.
He also had been disciplined in 2011 for forcing his way inside a home and brandishing his weapon at a man without probable cause, according to charging documents.
Bethany Sullivan, Harmon-Wright’s mother and a former administrative assistant to the Culpeper police chief, is scheduled to stand trial in April for allegedly forging her son’s employment entrance exam and one of his annual reviews.
Gary Cook, Patricia Cook’s husband, filed a $5 million civil suit against Harmon-Wright, but he died last September before it could go to trial. His relatives plan to pursue the suit. A trial date has not been set.
Some in Culpeper said they felt authorities were too slow to bring charges in the case, and a Justice for Patricia Cook Facebook page was started.
Mayor Calvin L. Coleman said in a statement that he hoped those wounds could heal.
“The men and women of the Culpeper Police Department are hard working and should not be judged by the actions of a former officer,” Coleman said.