RALEIGH (AP) — An appeals court began considering Tuesday whether a suburban Raleigh man convicted of strangling his estranged wife was able to mount a full defense or needs a new trial because the judge overlooked a defense witness’s experience and just considered his lack of certification.
In an unusually high-energy hour of arguments and questions, the three-judge panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals probed whether attorneys for Bradley Cooper of Cary were thwarted from presenting their best case before his 2011 conviction for first-degree murder.
The trial judge wrongly denied two witnesses who would have testified that someone could have remotely tampered with Cooper’s computer. The judge disqualified one because he said the person didn’t have needed training certifications. The replacement witness was out because he stepped up too late in the trial’s course, Cooper’s lawyer Ann Petersen told the judges.
Cooper’s lawyers said someone planted a Google Map search onto the Canadian native’s computer showing where 34-year-old Nancy Cooper’s body was found in 2008. Prosecutors say the map search was performed before she disappeared, indicating that Brad Cooper planned where to dump his wife’s body after killing her.
The map evidence was key to jurors deciding to convict Cooper, the jury foreman said weeks after the trial concluded. Jurors should have heard how Cooper’s home Internet network was vulnerable to a hacker aiming to pin the slaying on him, Petersen said.
Proposed defense network security expert Jay Ward “was specifically prohibited from offering his opinion whether that meant that Brad’s computer was hacked into,” Petersen said. “The defendant has a constitutional right to present his defense. The Google Maps (tampering) was his defense … and the jury heard none of it.”
State attorneys say the judge’s decision had little effect because prosecutors had overwhelming evidence Cooper was guilty. Ward testified for Cooper, Assistant Attorney General LaToya Powell said. Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner’s ruling only barred defense attorneys from presenting Ward as an expert qualified to support the hacking theory, Powell said.
“The only thing the jury didn’t hear was, ‘I’m an expert,'” Powell said.
But Judge Martha Geer repeatedly questioned state attorneys on whether Gessner excluded Ward because the trial judge got hung up on whether Ward had a certificate in forensic computer analysis and failed to consider his experience working for Fortune 500 companies as a network security authority.
“Why is his practical experience not sufficient?” Geer asked.
Cooper, 39, said his wife went for a jog on the morning she disappeared in July 2008 and never returned. Nancy Cooper’s body, clad only in a jogging bra, was found at a construction site in a subdivision less than three miles from the couple’s home.
Witnesses testified the couple argued at a party the night before she disappeared. The Coopers had each had affairs outside marriage and appeared headed for divorce. Nancy Cooper had planned to return to Canada with the couple’s children.
The Coopers moved from Alberta, Canada, to Cary in 2001 so Bradley Cooper could take a technology-related job at a Research Triangle company