Cooper Speaks

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

Rhonda Cooper continues to hurt Cory Maye years after his family fired her.

Cooper speaks up to defend her work in the Maye case in a piece by Jerry Mitchell in today’s Clarion-Ledger.

Her attempts to rationalize her inadequacies are mind-blowing. Excerpts, followed by my comments:

Jackson lawyer Rhonda Cooper said Monday she did her job in defending Cory Maye of Prentiss, who was convicted of killing a police officer in a 2001 drug raid.

“I was trying to save somebody’s life,” she said. “It was do or die.”

Why, then, did Cooper meet with Cory just three times in the two years between the raid and the trial? Why did she tell Cory’s family she had experience in capital murder trials when, in fact, she had none?

Eubanks found that Cooper had adequately represented Maye during the guilt phase of the trial. “I’m pleased the judge found that I didn’t do anything wrong in the trial,” she said.

Um, not the same, Ms. Cooper. The judge found you “competent” with respect to a claim of ineffective assistance of council. It doesn’t meean you “didn’t do anything wrong.” It means you weren’t so horrible so as to give cause for the rare and extraordinary step of ordering a new trial. It is by no means an endorsement of your performance.

On Jan. 23, 2004, jurors returned with their guilty verdict at 11:49 a.m. – a little more than an hour after they started deliberations.

Cooper said the verdict stunned her. “It took my breath away,” she said. “Nobody expected that.”

Jesus. You didn’t expect it? You’re the defense attorney, for crying out loud. You’re supposed to prepare for these kinds of things.

The proper verdict, she said, would have been manslaughter.

I’m no expert on legal ethics, but this strikes me as highly inappropriate. A man is maintaining his innocence in the appeals process, and his former attorney tells a newspaper reporter he’s probably guilty of manslaughter? Surely that borders on some sort of malpractice.

She said she asked for more time to prepare for the penalty phase, but the judge turned her down, saying jurors from the sequestered panel were tired and wanted to go home.

“We had the conviction,” she said. “Why did we have to move into the penalty phase that afternoon?”

She should have been given more time, perhaps a week, she said. “We didn’t have to do it that Friday. Where is he going such that you have to rush it?”

She may have a point, here. I’ve always been troubled by the fact that the jury deliberated and convicted, and that the death penalty phase was tried, deliberated, and a verdict delivered all in the same afternoon. But it doesn’t excuse her utter and complete lack of preparation for the death penality phase. She hadn’t prepared the two witnesses she did call, nor had she called a sufficient number of witnesses in the first place. She hadn’t even prepared jury instructions, explaining to the judge, “I didn’t think it would get this far.” That’s inexcusable. It goes back to her having no experience in a capital case, as well as the way she misrepresented that lack of experience to Cory’s family.

In the end, “we got what we wanted, which is no death sentence,” she said, “so if everybody has to celebrate at my expense to get Cory off death row, so be it.”

No. We’re nowhere near “what we wanted.” Cory could still be sentenced to death, and as things stand now, he could still spend the rest of his life in prison. And there’s no “we” about it. If Rhonda Cooper hadn’t been fired, Cory would still be on death row.

Perhaps Cooper did “do her best,” given the circumstances. But there’s no getting around the fact that she misled Cory’s family about her experience (and cashed their check). Her lack of experience was apparent throughout the entire trial, not merely the death penalty portion. And her implication that Cory is guilty of manslaughter, even as he is still early in his appeal process, I would think is grounds for an ethics complaint.

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