Brad Cooper will get a new trial.
That’s the word from the North Carolina Supreme Court which, today, denied the State of North Carolina’s petition for discretionary review.
Cooper Trial Background
Cooper was convicted in 2011 of the murder of his wife in a case built almost entirely in circumstantial evidence, with a healthy dose of neighborhood gossip about affairs, a disintegrating marriage, and general bitterness.
The key part of the State’s case was evidence allegedly found on Cooper’s computer that indicated that he had done a Google maps search of the location where his wife’s body was ultimately found, before the body was found.
In his closing remarks, prosecutor Boz Zellinger essentially asked the jury how Brad Cooper would’ve known to do a Google maps search for that particular location prior to the police locating her body, unless he himself had killed her and dumped her body there.
That evidence was supported by testimony by the State’s computer forensic experts, and turned on the question of whether Cooper’s computer on which the Google search was found, was properly stored and preserved by police officials after it was seized, and whether a forensically sound examination was performed by the State.
Cooper’s defense lawyers argued that the computer and been tampered with, and that the Cary police had been inept in their investigation. Cooper’s lawyers offered a private computer specialist Jay Ward as their expert witness, but at trial, as the defense sought to qualify their witness, the prosecution objected.
The result was a voir dire out of the presence of the Jury in which Ward testified that, had he been allowed to, he would have offered his opinion to the jury that the incriminating Google map files had been planted on Cooper’s computer.
The judge agreed, in part, with Zellinger who argued on behalf of the state that Ward was unqualified to testify specifically about the Google Map files.
After the court rejected the Defense’s attempt to have Ward testify as an expert witness to the jury, the Defense attempted to have a second witness testify. But because that replacement expert’s name was not on a pre-trial witness list, the Court, upon the State’s objection, denied Cooper’s right to have this second witness testify.
Another issue had to do with network security. Cooper, in spite of working at Cisco, had a deprecated form of wireless encryption at his home – WEP – that is notoriously insecure. The Defense postulated that insecurities in WEP could have resulted in someone hacking into Brad Cooper’s home network and injecting packets into the network and ultimately onto his computer.
In a 56-page opinion issued in September the North Carolina Court of Appeals found a number of errors in the trial.
The Court of Appeals held that Cooper’s due process right to present a defense was compromised when the trial court ruled that Ward was not qualified to give testimony about tampering of Cooper’s computer.
The Court of Appeals also held that Cooper’s right to put on a defense was compromised when the trial court, upon the State’s objection, precluded the testimony of the second computer analyst as a sanction for purported discovery violations.
The Court of Appeals also held that the Defense had a right to inquire into the State’s claim that certain methods of conducting a forensic analysis are protected by National Security considerations and therefore off limits to the Defense.
And the Court of Appeals held that it was error for the trial court to rule upon the Defense’ discovery motion with respect to this National Security claim without conducting an in camera review of the files pursuant to Pennsylvania v. Ritchie
The Court of Appeals ordered a new hearing. Because the Court of Appeals’ ruling was unanimous, the matter does not automatically go to the Supreme Court for review.
In this case, however, the State filed a petition for discretionary review.
The Petition for Discretionary Review was denied which means that the Court of Appeals has had the last word on the first trial, and the case will now be returned to Wake County for a new jury trial presumably this year.