Appeals court orders new trial in Brad Cooper murder case

ablythe@newsobserver.comSeptember 3, 2013 

COOPER03.NE.022811.ASR

Bradley Cooper listens as motions are made before jury selection in 2011.

SHAWN ROCCO — srocco@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— The state Court of Appeals on Tuesday ordered a new murder trial for Bradley Cooper, who was convicted in 2011 of strangling his wife, Nancy, in July 2008 and dumping her body in an unfinished subdivision not far from their Cary home.

Three judges wrote that the trial court should not have blocked Cooper’s attorneys from seeing analytical data about a Google Maps search that an expert found on Brad Cooper’s laptop.

Judge Paul Gessner ruled during the trial that computer experts hired by Cooper’s attorneys could not testify about computer evidence the prosecution used, saying issues of national security were involved.

The appeals court panel agreed with Cooper’s lawyers that decisions Gessner made kept Cooper from putting on his best defense.

The evidence in the Cooper case was largely circumstantial.

Jurors said after their decision that prosecutors won with computer evidence that defense lawyers had tried to quash, in part because they argued that it was gathered illegally.

In the ruling Tuesday, the appeals court judges said: "The sole physical evidence linking Defendant to Ms. Cooper’s murder was the alleged Google Map search, conducted on

Defendant’s laptop, of the exact area where Ms. Cooper’s body was discovered. Absent this evidence, the evidence connecting Defendant to this crime was primarily potential motive, opportunity, and testimony of suspicious behavior.

“We hold, whether the error was constitutional or not, that erroneously preventing Defendant from presenting expert testimony, challenging arguably the strongest piece of the State’s evidence, constituted reversible error and requires a new trial,” the judges said as they quoted state law, “because ‘there is a reasonable possibility that, had the error in question not been committed, a different result would have been reached at the trial out of which the appeal arises.’"

An FBI agent had helped police examine the information on Cooper’s computer, and Gessner ruled that the agent did not have to disclose how the FBI does its analysis because of the need to keep that confidential.

That was wrong, Judge Linda M. McGee wrote in the opinion in which Judges Martha A. Geer and Mark A. Davis concurred.

“It was error for the trial court to shut down this line of questioning without ascertaining how, or if, national security or some other legitimate interest outweighed the probative value of this information to Defendant.”

One of the prosecution’s arguments during the trial was that Cooper had used satellite imagery of the area to search for somewhere to put Nancy Cooper’s body once he killed her.

The couple had been having marital difficulties, witnesses said during the trial that lasted almost two months.

Brad Cooper told police that Nancy Cooper had gone for a run and had not returned.

Her body, clad only in a sports bra, was found by a passer-by.

The prosecution experts examined a computer Brad Cooper used at work and found files that, when pieced together, showed the area where Nancy Cooper’s body was found.

Defense attorneys Howard Kurtz and Robert Trenkle wanted to explore information about the search techniques used, not the search results themselves, and that led to the ruling about national security requiring Gessner to block them so FBI methods would not be revealed.

There also were questions about the operating systems of Cooper’s computer and the one the police used for testing his data.

In a section of the transcript quoted in the appeals ruling, Kurtz said, “But, Your Honor, there is a witness on the stand that can answer specifically whether this is an issue of national security. And I’m not even going to be allowed to ask that question?”

FBI Special Agent Greg Johnson was on the stand at the time.

“In this case, however, we find the blanket exclusion ordered by the trial court unsupported by the record we have before us. When cross-examination of a key State’s witness is going to

potentially be limited by exclusion of certain discovery in a first-degree murder trial, a more particularized and focused order is warranted,” the court wrote.

The judges also said the trial court should have looked at the data before making a ruling.

Cooper’s attorneys made their appeal argument in April.

The murder trial in the spring of 2011 was described by longtime courthouse officials as one of Wake County’s longest, with nearly 36 days of testimony and a note from the jury toward the end of the trial asking the judge to instruct the lawyers to use their time more judiciously so they could return to their lives.

For several weeks, prosecutors called numerous friends and family of Nancy Cooper to the witness stand to describe the crumbling relationship between her and Brad.

Nancy Cooper, the more outspoken of the two, had told many people that she wanted out of her marriage and planned to return to her native Canada with her two children.

Friends described Nancy Cooper as an emotionally battered wife, a former career woman in Canada who had to rely on her husband for her financial well-being because she did not have the necessary documents to work in this country.

Friends testified that her husband gave her an allowance but cut off her access to the couple’s bank accounts. Defense attorneys contended that Nancy Cooper spent beyond the family’s means and that her husband instituted financial controls to protect their assets.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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