In July of 2008 in the Raleigh suburb of Cary, North Carolina, Nancy Cooper, a beautiful mother of two was strangled to death. She was left partially nude in a drainage ditch not far from her upper-middle class neighborhood. The police immediately suspected her husband, Brad. The police subsequently arrested him for Nancy’s murder. In 2011, after one of the longest trials in Wake County, North Carolina history, a jury convicted Brad Cooper of first degree murder.
During the trial, the prosecution spent months trying to prove Brad engaged in some level of domestic violence, yet the only thing they proved was that a husband tried to manage his wife’s out-of-control spending by instituting a budget. Surprisingly, only a small portion of the trial focused on the sole physical evidence connecting Brad to the murder, which was a Google Maps search. The FBI analyzed one of Brad’s laptops and uncovered a 42 second internet session from the day before Nancy went missing that zoomed in on the exact location where her body was later found.
Judge Paul Gessner presided over Brad’s trial. Judge Gessner was a former police officer, prosecutor and an experienced judge. Notwithstanding his strong credentials, Judge Gessner made many controversial and questionable decisions during the trial and almost all of them were unfavorable to the defense. Many of his decisions involved evidence and testimony surrounding the Google Maps internet search. Judge Gessner denied the defense access to the FBI’s notes and procedures regarding how they discovered and evaluated the Google Maps search. Judge Gessner also prevented the defense’s computer witness from testifying as an expert and then he prevented another defense computer expert from testifying at all. Both of the defense’s experts believed the computer had been tampered with and that the key evidence had been planted; however, neither expert was allowed to present their findings to the jury. As a result of Judge Gessner’s decisions, Brad was unable to present contrary evidence refuting the only item potentially linking him to the crime. Therefore, it was not surprising that Brad was convicted of first degree murder.
In late 2013, after numerous legal filings and motions, Brad’s murder conviction was unanimously overturned by the North Carolina Court of Appeals on all three arguments the defense brought forth. The Court of Appeals chastised Judge Gessner for repeatedly abusing his discretion and stated, “…we hold that the trial court erred in violation of the constitutions of the United States and North Carolina.” Brad was granted a new trial.
Upon returning to the courtroom, Brad again came face-to-face with Judge Gessner. Though there was no apparent bias, Judge Gessner had previously made numerous decisions that deprived Brad of a fair trial. Since the Court of Appeals did not specifically bar Judge Gessner from involvement in the Cooper legal proceedings, he was eligible to preside over the second trial.
Brad faced a difficult decision. Does he go to trial again with a judge who violated his constitutional rights or take a guilty plea? Prior to his first trial, Brad was offered a plea deal of second degree murder. If he declined and lost at trial, he would have faced the possibility of life in prison. At the time, Brad either felt there was not enough evidence to convict him or did not want to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit. If it were the latter, then Brad would likely not take a guilty plea the second time around either. Who would plead guilty if they were innocent?
Brad had to weigh many factors. What would happen if Judge Gessner again denied Brad a fair trial? Would Brad stay in prison another three years hoping for the Court of Appeals to rule in his favor again? With the same judge, the chances he would a fair trial were not good. On the contrary, if he pled guilty, he would get credit for time served, and he would get out of prison at some point in the not-too-distant future. The second plea offer was for second degree murder and 12 to 16 years. The police arrested Brad in 2008; and as a result, he had already spent six years in prison by the time he was granted a second trial. Though the pure idealist would fight to the end, Brad made a calculated decision, and pled guilty.
Brad was placed in a situation no person should have to encounter. The judicial system needs to acknowledge that judges are human with bias. If a judge is overturned on a case, the judge should be barred from presiding over any future legal proceedings pertaining to that case. Judges have egos and personal motivations, like everyone else. We should not force defendants to stand before the very person whose decision(s) they successfully overturned. We should not expect judges to remain fair and impartial toward someone who has hurt their professional reputation. Had Brad Cooper drawn any other judge, he would have likely gone back to trial and a jury would have decided his fate rather than fear of impropriety by the judge.
*This post was written by John W. Taylor, Author of Isolated Incident: Investigating the Death of Nancy Cooper. To read more about John, visit his website at TrueCrimeWriting.com.