Jury says Cooper guilty of murders
Fred Cooper is guilty of murdering Gateway couple Michelle and Steven Andrews, a Pinellas County jury decided Tuesday.
He could now be sentenced to death.
The verdict followed six hours of deliberations. He was pronounced guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of armed burglary.
As the jury foreman read it aloud, Cooper closed his eyes. The victims’ family and friends — arms draped on shoulders, heads bowed — showed little reaction initially but erupted into tears and hugs at court’s adjournment.
“It’s just a relief,” a tearful Barbara Andrews, Steven’s mother, could be heard saying.
In the middle of a crowd of hugging and hand-shaking, she found Linda Kokora, Michelle’s mother, and the two fell into a tearful hug.
Cooper was fingerprinted at the defense table before being led out of the courtroom.
Assistant State Attorney Anthony Kunasek said the State Attorney’s Office was “extremely pleased with the verdict just rendered.”
Ken Garber, Cooper’s lead attorney, declined comment.
Jurors will return today for the penalty phase, a hearing in which Cooper’s attorneys will present mitigating factors that could keep him from a death sentence. The state, meanwhile, will offer aggravating factors.
Jurors will then vote to recommend Judge Thomas S. Reese impose a certain sentence. Unlike a trial verdict, which must be unanimous, only a simple majority of jurors must agree with the recommendation for it to be forwarded.
Cooper could receive the death penalty, or he could receive life in prison.
The jury’s decision is a remarkable turnaround from Cooper’s first trial in October, when a Lee County jury failed to reach a verdict after four days of deliberations. Jurors in that trial later described the deliberations as tense, if not hostile.
Reese moved Cooper’s second trial to St. Petersburg to escape media pressure in Lee County.
On Tuesday, running out of time with the borrowed courtroom, Reese kept jurors late in an ostensible effort to encourage a verdict.
Just over three hours into deliberations, about 4:30 p.m., they asked to hear recordings of Cooper’s interviews with Lee County detectives, which were played earlier in the trial. When the recordings ended after 90 minutes, Reese sent them back into deliberations.
The trial, in its eleventh day Tuesday, largely resembled the first. Its witness list was almost identical, and testimony remained generally the same.
But prosecutors tightened their case after Cooper’s testimony in the first trial, parts of which appeared to take them by surprise. Earlier on Tuesday, Chief Assistant State Attorney Randy McGruther summed up the case in closing statements as “common sense” versus coincidence.
He said Cooper’s account — that he and Michelle became “allies” in the fight to save their relationships and that they had sex the night before the Andrewses’ bodies were found — was fit to DNA evidence investigators found.
Cooper had initially told detectives he was not in Gateway at the time of the killings and did not know where the Andrewses lived.
“The truth is — by his own admission yesterday — he will lie to get out of a jam,” prosecutor Randy McGruther told jurors. “He will lie to get the results he wants. That’s how he goes through life, folks. And he’s in the jam of his life right now. Why would he act any differently now?”
Investigators’ evidence was largely circumstantial. A murder weapon was never found, nor Cooper’s fingerprints. His DNA profile was teased out of mixed profiles from two samples on Michelle — neither of which was semen — and no photographs tied him to the scene.
But by fully embracing his story, Cooper may have strained jurors’ ability to believe it. He later admitted the story was a lie.
When he testified Monday, he answered every question calmly and looked toward jurors. But some answers tested belief, such as his claim that he never, under any circumstances, called Michelle or his contention that teenagers would not have noticed his yellow motorcycle parked in a driveway because they were not old enough to drive one.
Cooper’s defense, as summarized by Garber during Tuesday’s closing argument, was that he lied to protect his longtime girlfriend, Kellie Ballew, from hearing about his encounter with Michelle. Even as a double homicide rap loomed, Cooper held a “naive belief” that he would be seen as innocent.
“He wasn’t concerned about the investigation because he knew he hadn’t committed these crimes,” Garber said.
On Tuesday, a jury disagreed.
Court reconvenes today at 8:45 a.m.
Steven Beardsley is a staff writer for the Naples Daily News. Contact email@example.com.