One of the string of Virginia murder cases involving prosecutorial misconduct we have been covering has ended in a plea agreement. The case of Brandon Cooper from Richmond County was resolved on Friday, August 16, 2013 when Cooper was allowed to plea to 14 years in prison. Cooper initially received 55 years at trial, but his conviction was overturned because the prosecutors in his case failed to disclose impeachment evidence about two of their key witnesses.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Cooper’s plea agreement is an unusual one: he received a 55-year prison sentence with 41 years suspended, meaning he will be released after serving just 14 years in jail.
The plea was a blow to the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney, who admitted that the undisclosed evidence should have been shared with Cooper’s defense team. Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring made numerous comments about the case including a number of concessions, as reported by the Times-Dispatch:
“It’s a big, nasty pill to swallow,” said Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring, expressing continued backing for veteran prosecutor Chris Jones but acknowledging errors in the way potentially exculpatory evidence was withheld from defense lawyers. “The defense was entitled to information they didn’t get.”
…After court Friday, Herring also acknowledged that the witness misrepresented the extent of her cooperation with police, vastly understating it. Herring said that confusion also had arisen over the identity of a 911 caller who reported the Feb. 12 shooting last year that took the life of Antwon D. Freeman in the 1300 block of St. John Street.
Herring acknowledged that Freeman’s family was not given the opportunity to weigh in on the plea agreement Friday before it was reached. A retrial for Cooper had been scheduled for next week, and Cooper’s lawyers had been expected to continue arguments that the murder charge should be dropped.
Herring said his office could have gone forward with a new trial for Cooper but that witnesses would have been subjected to cross-examination by the defense that likely would have undermined their credibility. Another witness would also have been in a position to testify that Freeman was armed and was on his way to make a drug deal when he was shot. And a witness used at trial has had her home shot into since Cooper’s earlier jury conviction.
“It was a mistake, but a mistake of huge magnitude,” Herring said after court, referring to prosecutor Jones’ conclusion that a witness’s cooperation with police about drug dealing was not relevant in a murder trial. “We’re hoping that nothing approaching this will ever happen again.”
Herring said he is reviewing evidentiary procedures with his staff and making sure police detectives fully provide to prosecutors information about their cases so that witnesses can be questioned more accurately about the circumstances and nature of their testimony.
He said Jones is a veteran of dozens of homicide prosecutions and will be handling many more in the future. But Herring added, “Prosecutors shouldn’t be at the mercy of an informant’s lies.”