Former Marine sentenced for fatal shot made while serving as police officer
Culpeper (Va.) Star-Exponent
A Culpeper County jury of eight women and four men opted for the lowest end of punishment in sentencing a former Culpeper Town cop to 36 months jail time for fatally shooting a local housewife nearly a year ago.
Daniel Harmon-Wright received his sentence Friday afternoon in Culpeper County Circuit Court after tear-filled testimony from him, his wife and a fellow Iraqi War veteran followed by three hours of jury deliberation in the Feb. 9, 2012 death of Patricia Ann Cook, of Culpeper. Harmon-Wright faced 25 years behind bars after the jury found him guilty Tuesday of voluntary manslaughter, shooting at an occupied vehicle and involuntary manslaughter.
Harmon-Wright, 33, was on duty as a five-year member of the Culpeper PD the day he encountered Cook, 54, sitting in her Jeep parked in a school parking lot on North East Street in downtown Culpeper. He shot the woman in the back of the head and spine as she attempted to drive off following a verbal altercation.
"He abandoned his position as a police officer. He lost it and he slaughtered this woman," said special prosecutor Jim Fisher, Fauquier County Commonwealth's Attorney, in closing remarks prior to sentencing deliberations.
Fisher emphasized "the relative innocence of the victim" and lack of remorse in arguing "aggravating factors" of the shooting, asking the jury to fix punishment on the higher end of the scale. The prosecutor said Cook's only apparent crime was violating a no-trespassing sign posted in the school lot.
"She was attempting to leave ... obviously she was not doing it to the satisfaction of Officer Wright," said Fisher, calling the shooting "vicious" and "brutal."
It remains unknown why Cook, a retired cosmetologist, was parked at the school that day. Harmon-Wright previously testified that when he approached her vehicle — after responding to a call for a suspicious vehicle — that he observed a female "leaned back" with her head back. Upon further questioning, he described Cook as having "odd" behavior.
Fisher used that statement to hammer home a point prior to sentencing.
"(Mrs. Cook) was emotionally fragile, mentally fragile," he said, his voice getting louder. "The law is supposed to protect the most fragile among us — not slaughter them!"
Harmon-Wright claimed he shot Cook after she rolled up her window on his hand and used her vehicle to try to kill him. Eyewitnesses testified Harmon-Wright's hand was not trapped when he fired the fatal shots standing in the street behind Cook's departing Jeep.
"I was so afraid that I was going to die," he said on the stand Friday. "I didn't see any other way out of what I did."
Harmon-Wright and the defense maintained throughout his eight-day trial that what he did was justified because he was acting to protect the public after Cook pulled off into the wrong side of the road, her windshield obstructed by a sun screen.
Asked prior to sentencing how he got into law enforcement, Harmon-Wright, a former U.S. Marine who did a tour in Iraq post 9-11, said he wanted to continue to serve after he got out of the military.
"I missed the service, but had enough of the war," he said.
Harmon-Wright said he heard about the opening at the Culpeper PD in 2006 through his mother, administrative secretary to the police chief at the time. Friday, he described his colleagues at the police department as dedicated and professional saying it was "a thrill" to serve the community as part of the force. He added that after the events of Feb. 9, 2012 that he would never consider a job in law enforcement again — as a convicted felon Harmon-Wright would be ineligible to work in law enforcement or own a firearm. His lawyer said he would consider appealing the conviction.
"That day was absolutely horrible," Harmon-Wright, crying, told the jury prior to sentencing. "I am depressed all the time."
He said he spent "every waking second of every day" reflecting on Cook's death before sitting down next to his attorney, heaving with sobs and covering his face with his hands.
Harmon-Wright's buddy from the Marines, Brendon King, took the stand prior to sentencing as well saying the defendant "is an outstanding Marine," a calm, consummate professional in battle. King said Harmon-Wright was "heart-broken" after killing Cook.
"He was emotionally distraught by what happened. He was in shock. During the war, we were exposed to some bad stuff, but never had to kill someone," King said.
The jury also heard Friday from Harmon-Wright's wife, Dyanne Estes Wright, appearing emotionally broken and inconsolable, her testimony at times indecipherable. She cried the entire time on the stand saying her husband "has just been punished so much from this event."
"We lost everything we worked so hard for," Mrs. Wright said.
She said she and their 17-month-old son had been living away from Harmon-Wright since September with family in California.
"It's been really, really hard seeing our son be punished," she said.
The commonwealth, in putting on pre-sentencing evidence Friday, submitted photos of Cook from her life. The Culpeper woman reportedly loved young people though she had no children of her own. Cook was active in the children's ministry at Culpeper United Methodist Church and an avid crafter. She lived with husband Gary Cook in a small apartment outside of town. Mr. Cook died of natural causes in the apartment seven months after his wife was killed.
"This act was done by a person who was in a position of trust," Fisher said Friday prior to sentencing. "He betrayed that trust," he said adding that the unlawful killing "puts a black mark on the honorable profession of those who seek to protect and serve."
"This was a real human being who lost her life, a real member of your community," Fisher told the jury, holding up the photos of Cook.
Defense attorney Daniel Hawes, in arguing for the lowest end of punishment prior to sentencing, admitted that the killing of Cook "was a horrible incident — horrible for everybody." Hawes said his client believed then and still believes that he did the right thing in shooting her.
"He would act to protect the public again," Hawes said. "He made a quick decision and he can't find anything wrong with that decision today. What was it about her bizarre behavior that day that caused him to make that decision?"
Why did Cook drive away even when Harmon-Wright repeatedly told her to stop or he would shoot, Hawes said.
"That kind of behavior would make sense if she had just robbed a bank or kidnapped a child from that school ... so yes, she was bent on destruction - we don't know if it was an attempt to commit suicide using a police officer or she was attempting to kill someone else," Hawes said, the prosecution objecting.
Harmon-Wright "lives with this every day," the attorney said. "He doesn't like it either."
Following the sentencing verdict being read in court just before 2 p.m., Fisher and Hawes spoke with reporters outside the courthouse, adjacent to the jail where Harmon-Wright was escorted soon after.
"I am satisfied with the sentence. I think the incarceration sends a message that this was wrongful behavior. In the end it was a jury decision so I'll stand by the jury's judgment," said Fisher. "At the end of the day, I am pleased with the jury's judgment — I think that they did a good job. They worked hard in this case to be fair. In the end, there is no perfect system, but this is the system that we have and I'll stand by it."
Hawes said he felt the jury did the best it could after struggling with a difficult case.
"I still don't think (Harmon-Wright) was guilty of a crime," he said, asked if was pleased his client received the lowest end of punishment. "The jury made the decision they did and I think that their verdict is consistent with what they decided."
Hawes said Harmon-Wright "feels victimized by the procedure" leading up to his conviction because he holds fast to the belief that he was doing his duty as a police officer that February day. According to Hawes, in Virginia, sentences measured in months, like in his client's case, the person convicted serves their imprisonment in a county jail.
Hawes said he would "almost certainly" ask the judge to reduce Harmon-Wright's sentence at the sentencing hearing April 10 at 1:30 p.m. in Culpeper County Circuit Court.
Earlier Friday, Judge Susan Whitlock denied Hawes' motion for a mistrial entered Wednesday after two dictonaries and a thesarus were found in the jury room. Whitlock said use of the reference books to look up "malice" ultimately resulted in a verdict prejudicial to the defense.
Whitlock, circuit court judge since May, was strict about ingress and egress and courtroom decorum throughout the eight day trial of Harmon-Wright. The judge was consisently well-informed about all the details of the complex case.
"It's been a long trial," Whitlock said Friday, thanking the jury for its service. "This has been a very serious case."
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