Virginia Cop Who Shot Sunday School Teacher Patricia Cook Faces Only Three Years in Prison

A year ago this week Officer Daniel Harmon-Wright killed 54-year-old Patricia Cook in the parking lot of Epiphany Catholic School in Culpeper, Virginia, for the crime of driving away when he tried to question her. Last week, Harmon-Wright was convicted of manslaughter. On Friday, a jury recommended he serve three years in prison.

On Feb. 9, 2012 Harmon-Wright was dispatched to find out why Cook would not leave the Epiphany Catholic School's parking lot. When Cook rolled up her window during questioning and began to drive away, Harmon-Wright fired two shots point blank, striking Cook in the face and the arm. As Cook drove away, Harmon-Wright fired through the back window, striking her in the head, the spine, and the heart. The last shot killed her and sent the Jeep careening into a telephone poll.

Judge Susan Whitlock will sentence Harmon-Wright in April. According to the Associated Press, Whitlock "can reduce the prison time but not increase it." That's a pretty sweet deal for Harmon-Wright considering a.) the charges against him were murder, malicious shooting into an occupied vehicle, malicious shooting into an occupied vehicle resulting in a death, and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, and b.) the maximum penalty he faced was 25 years.

Harmon-Wright's defense was that he had to shoot Cook; the first two times because she trapped his arm in her window, the next five times because she continued to drive with her vision obscured by a sun-shade. That defense apparently worked on the jury despite testimony from eyewitnesses who claimed Harmon-Wright had one hand on the door handle and the other on his gun when he first started firing, and that he ran after Cook's car in order to keep shooting at her. In other words, while Harmon-Wright said he feared for his life, the only other people to witness the incident said that was never, ever the case.

There are still some unanswered questions, such as why Cook, a childless Methodist, refused to leave the parking lot of a Catholic school; and what Harmon-Wright said or did to scare Cook, whose last run-in with the law was a speeding ticket in the 1970s. But now that Harmon-Wright has been convicted, the more pressing question is why he was hired at the Culpeper Police Department in the first place.

Soon after Harmon-Wright was arrested, it was revealed that he had a tarnished military record, a drinking problem, and a history of harassing Culpeper residents. The first two problems nearly kept him from getting the job, and no one at the Culpeper Police Department will say why they didn't.

I'm also trying to find out what Harmon-Wright's conviction means for the $5.35 million wrongful death suit filed by Cook's husband. Gary Cook died four months after filing, and Patricia Cook's younger brother is now acting as his sister's representative.

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  • Hugh Akston||

    On Feb. 9, 2012 Harmon-Wright was dispatched to find out why Cook would not leave the Epiphany Catholic School's parking lot. When Cook rolled up her window during questioning and began to drive away, Harmon-Wright fired two shots point blank, striking Cook in the face and the arm. As Cook drove away, Harmon-Wright fired through the back window, striking her in the head, the spine, and the heart. The last shot killed her and sent the Jeep careening into a telephone poll.

    Holy shit.

  • Professional Target||

    Yeah, we need to get the (cops') guns off the streets of Culpepper.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    New York City needs to hire him as a firearms instructor.

  • John||

    Three years. That is just pathetic. If I were that kid's son, I wouldn't kill him. But I would wait until he got out of prison and kneecap him. Let him live the rest of his life in pain and crippled.

  • WTF||

    there is no double standard and police are often held to a higher standard
    hth
    /dunphy

  • sarcasmic||

    He's a cop in prison. There's a good chance that unless he's kept in solitary the whole time (which is torture in and of itself) some inmate will do the job so the son doesn't have to.

  • John||

    They protect their own. He will be in segregation with all of the child molesters and such. Won't be pleasant but it will be less than he deserves.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    If you want to get your blood boiling, watch the video at the first link in the article and listen to the defense attorney's comments.

    Disclaimer: I take no responsibility for any damage to your monitor that results.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    Meh, hard to really blame the defense attorney; it's his duty to make the argument client shouldn't be punished no matter how ridiculous that argument is.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    That is to say, stuff like that makes my blood boil when prosecuters or police officials say it, because their duty is to do what's best for the public; a defense attourney's only duty is to do what's best for their client.

  • Skyhawk||

    "stuff like that makes my blood boil when prosecuters or police officials say it, because their duty is to do what's best for the themselves"
    FTFY

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    Yep. And if I am a defendant in a criminal action, I sure as shit want my lawyer making that argument.

  • sarcasmic||

    Don't forget that the prosecutor and judge see the cop as a member of their own team and, whether consciously or unconsciously, most likely went as easy on him as they could.

  • R C Dean||

    I'm also trying to find out what Harmon-Wright's conviction means for the $5.35 million wrongful death suit filed by Cook's husband.

    Criminal convictions are admissable in civil cases, due to the higher standard of proof. It should make the civil case almost impossible to lose. There's still an open issue about the degree to which his employer will be held responsible, as well; I suspect the criminal conviction won't directly affect that issue.

    Damages, of course, both in extent and collectability, are another question.

  • John||

    Since he committed a crime, he loses his qualified immunity. That means he is personally liable for any judgment.

    The problem the city is going to have is the guy's history. Normally, the city is not responsible for the criminal acts of its employees. But in this case where they had pretty good reason to believe the guy was a criminal and hired him anyway, the city is probably going to be on the hook for negligent hiring. The city is where the money is obviously.

  • thom||

    Hired him anyway...and gave him a gun.

  • Ted S.||

    The city is where the money is obviously.

    The taxpayers are really where the money is. :-(

  • some guy||

    Have you been to Culpeper? I don't think those particular taxpayers have much left...

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Obligatory "I'm sure I'd get 3 years for doing this to a cop" post.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Or hell, if I, as a "civilian" did this to another "civilian."

  • sarcasmic||

    Peasant, dude. We're peasants, not civilians. Peasants. Get it straight.

  • Muzzle of Bees||

    I'm a teacher, so it's not outside the realm of reasonability that I might question someone being in the school parking lot out of concern for the safety of the students. If I fired 7 shots at the person because they drove away from me, what do you think the conviction and sentence would be?

    duuuuuhhhhh...it would be murder. I would have murdered someone. That is the right answer.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    This is absolutely atrocious, unless there's some fact we're missing, which I seriously doubt.

    The problem in this case is the jurors. The prosecutors brought a bunch of charges against this miscreant and the judge now has her hands tied. So you can't blame them.

    It should give pause to people who champion jury nullification, too.

  • Virginian||

    Propaganda and social programming. Most people know cops from what they see on TV. And on TV they only rough up a suspect when he really deserves it, or when there's no time to go through procedure.

    Just like most people base their opinions on guns from what they see on TV, most people base their opinions on cops from Law and Order, CSI, NCIS, etc.

    Tulpa, if you ever got on a jury, you would probably be the most skeptical person there. Everyone else takes cops at their word, even when the story keeps changing.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    Yep. I was on a jury for a possession with intent to distribute case last year but the guy plea bargained the day the trial was supposed to begin.

  • ||

    It should give pause to people who champion jury nullification, too.

    I trust the fully informed juror much more than I trust the prosecutor, who has the power to sweep cases like this under the rug, and who often does just that.

  • ||

    She obviously wasn't driving away, she was just creating enough distance so that she could throw her car in reverse and run him over backwards.

  • sarcasmic||

    Three years? Looks like the defense did a good job of only allowing boot-lickers onto the jury.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    TBH it's amazing that a Northern Virginia jury convicted an Iraq veteran at all. He had another Iraq vet testify to his integrity at the sentencing hearing, too.

    Also, WTF with the jury deciding sentencing. That's stupid outside a capital case.

  • some guy||

    I don't know if Culpeper qualifies as part of NoVa. It's way too rural.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    This is why the Culpeper Minutemen fought and died.

    To protect government murderers from the consequences of their actions.

  • ||

    Some animals are something something than others.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    According to the Associated Press, Whitlock "can reduce the prison time but not increase it."

    The poor man has suffered terribly, you know. It's time for the community to move on. Just let him collect his pension and reflect wistfully on those glorious days when HE WAS THE LAW.

  • hotsy totsy||

    Yeah, what difference, at this point, does it make?

  • The Late P Brooks||

    while Harmon-Wright said he feared for his life, the only other people to witness the incident said that was never, ever the case.

    What greater affront to OFFICER SAFETY could there be than failure to unquestioningly OBEY?

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    I like how the defense tried to get a mistrial because a juror looked up "malice" in the dictionary during deliberations.

  • SugarFree||

    Harmon-Wright's defense was that he had to shoot Cook; the first two times because she trapped his arm in her window, the next five times because she continued to drive with her vision obscured by a sun-shade.

    I know this gets used a lot, but seriously What The Fuck? That the whole jury didn't burst out with laughter at that being presented as a defense baffles me.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    Well, there are times when I want to execute people who are texting while driving, or sitting at a green light, so that part is a little understandable at least.

  • ||

    Well, there are times when I want to execute people who are texting while driving, or sitting at a green light, so that part is a little understandable at least.

    That's an awful lot of pent-up rage, dude.

  • Zeb||

    Well, if he hadn't stopped her, she might have crashed her car into something. Like a telephone pole, for example.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    She might have run over an innocent little baby child, with that sun visor blocking her view. The totality of circumstancess DEMANDED quick and resourceful action.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    What I don't get is how a dead person is a better driver than a live person with obstructed view.

  • T||

    Drive in Houston. You'll figure it out pretty quick.

  • Skyhawk||

    He was simply shooting at the sun visors so her vision would no longer be impaired. Her head got in the way.
    Thus, she was entirely at fault.

  • Paul.||

    On Friday, a jury recommended he serve three years in prison

    Cue article in three years about how Harmon-Wright was wrongfully convicted over shaky DNA evidence.

  • Paul.||

    But seriously, I'm afraid to go over to PoliceOne or whatever our favorite blog is... I'm literally afraid.

  • Andrew S.||

    You know exactly what the poliezi over at PoliceOne are saying about this. No sense in clicking over there and raising your blood pressure.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    I'm curious, what's the H+R solution to this?

    The prosecutor threw the book at this guy. The judge is prohibited from increasing the sentence, and actually gave the prosecution a favorable ruling about jury misconduct. The part of the system that failed was the jury. How do you plan to fix that?

  • Andrew S.||

    I'm highly skeptical that the prosecution didn't softball their case, whether purposefully or subconsciously. It's a common occurrence in the rare times that police officers are charged with on-duty offenses.

  • sarcasmic||

    You're probably right. I mean, everyone was on the same team.

  • Paul.||

    Jury jury nullification!

  • sarcasmic||

    Can't fix stupid.

  • Paul.||

    The prosecutor threw the book at this guy. The judge is prohibited from increasing the sentence, and actually gave the prosecution a favorable ruling about jury misconduct. The part of the system that failed was the jury. How do you plan to fix that?

    What's Zimmerman facing down? How long is he looking at if convictec?

  • Paul.||

    *convicted*

  • ChrisO||

    There is no solution, unfortunately. The jury system is about the best we can hope for, but it unfortunately results in things like this sometimes.

  • some guy||

    One possible solution would be to do away with random selection of jurors. Most jurors don't want to be there and know little about the justice process. Seems like it should be a volunteer position. obviously you'd still have to let both sides vet potential jurors.

  • GW||

    Juries are often uneducated about the whole process. Just like it's easy to convict a person with no evidence against them who simply talked to police. Apply a little spin, and the guy looks guilty.

    I should know, I was on a jury where we sent a (probably) innocent man to jail for 12 years, without a shred of evidence against him. And not one person on the jury thought he was innocent. Not one. A couple were struggling with "beyond a shadow of a doubt", but that's it.

  • Zeb||

    So why did you convict him?

  • GW||

    Because he had a few interviews with police, and the professionals managed to trip him on some minor inconsequential details, so it sounded kinda like he was lying. What he was probably doing was simply trying to talk his way out of trouble.

    People all know that defense attorneys use every trick in the book to cast doubt. Few people realize that the prosecution (and the cops!!) uses every trick in the book to make a defendant look guilty, regardless of whether he is or not.

    I didn't know then what I know now. And a hard to lesson to learn: NEVER talk to the police.

  • sarcasmic||

    If you knew then what you know now, I bet you'd have been excluded from the jury.

  • GW||

    No, because I simply wouldn't have taken the prosecution's word as gospel and been seeking out any minor inconsistency in the statements of the accused.

    The tendency of jurors is generally that defendants are guilty until proven innocent.

    I was on a jury (as an alternate) about a year ago where, much to my surprise, the jurors heavily questioned the authority of the police officer who testified, and gave his words no more weight than the defendant. That guy also had no evidence against him, but instead confessed during the police interview, according to the officer (there was no transcript of the interview). I questioned the prosecutors after the trial and informed them that if the defense attorney (a sorry excuse for a public defender) had been blessed with half a brain, this guy would have walked, even with the confession. They seemed shocked by that statement.

    But some people are starting to wake up.

  • sarcasmic||

    The job of a public pretender is to encourage the client to take a plea so his employer, the prosecution, can rack up another conviction.

  • johnl||

    Bingo. Public defenders are there to secure convictions.

  • Zeb||

    This is a tricky one. I think the best hope is that some day soon more people will realize that police are at least as apt to lie in court as anyone else (more so, I'd guess) and stop always giving them the benefit of the doubt.

  • thom||

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't the prosecutor have to charge the guy with manslaughter in order for the jury to find him guilty of it. They could have just charged him with murder and murder only. Maybe one or two of the jurors would have been comfortable letting the guy walk scot-free, but all twelve? Doubtful. The manslaughter charge may have been tossed in there to let the jury off the hook from making responsible decisions?

  • ChrisO||

    It's typical for prosecutors to add lesser-included offenses when prosecuting homicides. It's a way to ensure that the offender gets convicted of something if the jury isn't comfortable with a murder conviction.

    In fact, in at least some states I believe the lesser-included offenses are implied charges in the higher-level offense such as murder. Meaning that a jury in such a murder case could always convict for manslaughter, even if the prosecution didn't argue or specifically charge it.

  • Pudgeboy||

    I want to kick each jury member in his or her vagina... repeatedly.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I'll go with Andrew S on this; I cannot shake the suspicion that the prosecution brought those charges reluctantly, and did not pursue them quite so vigorously as they might have if it was some crazy civilian who fired all those shots at a fleeing car.

    Something tells me the prosecutor, and the judge herself, consider themselves and the police department to be on the same team.

  • R C Dean||

    Well, at a minimum, it shows how deep the authoritarian rot goes: all the way into the jury room. Not surprising, really.

    Doomed?

  • Loki||

    Manslaughter??? Doesn't manslaughter imply that the death was accidental? I'm pretty sure based on the facts as described that it was very much intentional. I guess the good news is that if any of us ever shoot and kill someone who's driving away in a vehicle, we can expect to get away with just 3 years in prison for manslaughter. You know, since there's no double standard or anything...

  • db||

    Thought experiment: you're on a jury hearing a high profile official misconduct case, especially involving police or other well connected members of government establishment. The offender did something really violent and impulsive. At the same time, the establishment, who he worked for and is well connected with, is defending him with lots of money and effort.

    You know, that jury anonymization efforts, if any, aside, a guilty verdict has a chance of painting a target on your car, your business, your home, etc.

    As an isolated juror drawn from a pool of people specifically selected for their ignorance of the law and pliant nature, what do you do?

  • ||

    Db, you failed to follow it up with an additional: "WHAT DO YOU DO?!"

    One question, how did I make it on a jury? No prosecuter worth his/her salt would seat me in the box.

  • db||

    Well, yeah. I'm asking you to step into the shoes of the typical jury fodder.

  • some guy||

    So, undereducated and dying to get the hell out of the courthouse so I can hit up Twitter?

  • jb4479||

    "As an isolated juror drawn from a pool of people specifically selected for their ignorance of the law and pliant nature"

    This is why I'm never selected for a jury.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    "what do you do?"

    I coulda taken them.

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