Monday, March 16, 2009

Cooper expected to be sentenced to life in prison Monday

5:54 p.m., Sunday, March 15, 2009

LEE COUNTY — Two trials and more than three years after the lifeless bodies of Steven and Michelle Andrews were discovered inside their bedroom, Fred DeWitt Cooper will answer for their deaths.

The former Bonita Springs motorcycle mechanic, convicted of breaking into the Andrews’ Gateway home and murdering the young couple in December 2005, faces sentencing in a Lee County courtroom today. A Pinellas County jury convicted him earlier this month, after his first trial in Fort Myers ended in a hung jury.

He is almost certain to be sentenced to life in prison.

A majority of Pinellas jurors recommended that sentence over state execution during the trial’s penalty phase. Although Lee Circuit Judge Thomas S. Reese can sentence Cooper, 30, to the death penalty, the ruling would be short lived, attorneys say. Case law strictly limits such a move.

“It would be a shock if Judge Reese gave death, and if he did, frankly it would be overturned on appeal,” said John Mills, a criminal defense attorney in Fort Myers.

Stephen Harper, a public defender in Miami with 15 years experience working capital murder cases, recalled only three or four times he’s seen a judge hand down a death penalty sentence after a jury recommended life.

“But I don’t think I’ve seen one that’s been upheld,” he added.

The victims’ family members are still deciding whether they’ll speak in court on Monday, said Samantha Syoen, spokeswoman for the State Attorney’s Office. Parents of both victims spoke to jurors during the penalty phase, but Monday will allow them to address the judge.

Both sets of parents have a standing wish not to speak to the media, Syoen said on Friday.

After the hearing, Cooper will be moved from Lee County Jail, where he has complained of harsh treatment, to a state prison. Unless his sentence is overturned, he will never be released. He will join 118 other Lee County convicts who are serving life sentences, according to the state Department of Corrections. Eight convicts from Lee are on death row.

Cooper can appeal his case to the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland, a process that could take a year before judgment is returned. If denied, he can only request future reviews from higher courts, from the Florida Supreme Court to the United States District Court in Fort Myers to the U.S. Supreme Court. The higher the court, the lower the chance his case will be reviewed, Mills said.

The victims’ families will begin a journey of their own after Monday’s hearing, said Nancy Ruhe, executive director of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children. “Closure” is never as simple as a conviction or a sentencing, she said.

“The only thing that closes in a homicide case is the lid of the coffin,” she said.

In fact, Ruhe explained, most family members “go downhill” after a long trial ends, even when the outcome is favorable. A trial offers purpose, she said, and media attention keeps the dead ever-present. When both are gone, the finality of murder hits hard, she said.

“The family, now they’ve gone home to figure out how to lead their lives without this person in their lives,” she said.

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