Jury Recommends Life in Prison for Fred Cooper. Defense pleads for children’s sake. The state should spare the life of convicted murderer Fred Cooper, a majority of Pinellas County jurors recommended Thursday. Lee County Judge Thomas S. Reese will likely follow that recommendation when he sentences Cooper on March 16. Cooper, 30, convicted of killing Steven and Michelle Andrews, both 28, showed little reaction to the news, despite an emotional day that at times brought him to tears.
Jurors were asked to weigh the case for Cooper’s death with a passionate plea for his life. They listened as family members recalled the lives of the victims, a young Gateway couple that doted on their 2-year-old child, and the troubled childhood of the convicted, who grew up without his father and got into trouble fast. In the end, the argument for Cooper’s life was the lives of the children involved. His attorney, Beatriz Taquechel, stood before jurors and held their pictures aloft, one in each hand. One was of the Andrewses’ 2-year-old son, the other was of Cooper’s 5-year-old daughter. “They’re the heirs to this pain. They’re the ones who want answers,” Taquechel pleaded. “They’re the ones who will have questions. If we kill him, there will be no answers, there will be no resolution, there will be nothing.”
Several jurors wiped away tears. The bodies of Steven and Michelle were found in their Gateway bedroom on the morning of Dec. 27, 2005. Steven had been shot to death. His wife was severely beaten and asphyxiated. Cooper was the immediate suspect. His longtime girlfriend, Kellie Ballew, had just begun an affair with Steven. Cooper’s first trial, in October, ended when a Lee County jury failed to deliver a verdict after 32 hours of deliberations. The second trial’s jurors on Thursday needed less than 90 minutes to recommend the sentence. On Tuesday, they convicted Cooper after six hours of deliberations. He was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of armed burglary.
Unlike the verdict phase, the penalty phase required only a majority of jurors to agree on a sentence. Once the recommendation was read aloud to the court, each juror was polled, and each said they agreed. Reese can still sentence Cooper to the death penalty, but the likelihood may be slim. David Brener, a Fort Myers criminal attorney, said a judge would have to show that the jury unreasonably recommended life in prison, despite the evidence presented during the penalty phase. Otherwise, a death sentence would be overturned on appeal.
Jurors were asked to weigh the nature of the crime with Cooper’s character. Prosecutors presented aggravating factors, including the nature of Michelle’s death, which could be considered “heinous, atrocious and cruel” by state law; the “cold, calculated and premeditated manner of the killings; and the fact the victims died at different times, which means one murder counts as a previous violent felony to the other. “Ladies and gentlemen, the mitigating factors simply do not come even close to outweighing the aggravating factors,” prosecutor Randy McGruther told jurors.
But no one from the prosecution or families called outright for Cooper’s death. The earlier testimony of Steven’s father, Russell Andrews, even suggested a reluctance toward the death penalty. He said that although the family’s belief in the life’s value were tested by Cooper, “We know Steven shared our belief and would want us to hold on to our humanity.” As the jury’s recommendations were read, Russell and his wife, Barbara, were not visibly disappointed. Michelle’s parents, Dan and Linda Kokora of Fort Myers, did not stay to hear the recommendations. Cooper’s defense offered no legal mitigating factors, such as mental duress or age at the time of the crime. Instead they put his family and friends on the stand. His mother, Denise Cooper, recalled her son’s “con artist” father and her own addiction to prescription medication. A young Fred Cooper resented his mother’s boyfriend and was picked on when he and his sister moved in with the boyfriend’s family, she said.
Cooper did not look at his mother, but stared at the defense table before him and flipped through a yellow notepad. He clutched a tissue in his hand and occasionally wiped his nose. Angela Cox, Cooper’s sister, described her brother as “a listener,” someone who did not share his problems easily but listened to hers. And she talked about the maturity she saw in him when he became a father. “He kind of grew up,” she said. “He kind of stepped into the role of ‘I have responsibilities now. I have to be a good person.’ Like, ‘I have to be there for my child,’ like he didn’t have. He wanted to have that father figure present for her that he didn’t have.”
If McGruther’s summary appealed to the law, Taquechel’s appealed to the jurors’ sympathy. The trial, Taquechel explained, was a journey the court had taken together. The penalty phase, she suggested, was not just for jurors, but for everyone. “This is where we come together to see what we’ve found and what our hearts can live with,” Taquechel said. She showed pictures of Cooper with his daughter and appealed to the jurors’ sense of family. She cited the season of Lent and appealed to a higher power, and she reassured the jurors that Cooper would never leave prison. Her voice became tearful. The murders, Taquechel told jurors, were an act of passion. “Betrayal stirs sadness, and sadness stirs passion, and passion stirs this moment, why we are here,” she said.