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Deadly decision
Harmon-Wright guilty in deadly shooting

Date published: 2/3/2013

WE WILL probably never know why 54-year-old Patricia Ann Cook pulled her Jeep into the parking lot of the Epiphany School in Culpeper last Feb. 9. Perhaps she wanted to think, or pray, or just rest in the privacy of her vehicle.

Whatever the reason, that action ended in her death, as then-Culpeper town policeman Daniel Harmon-Wright, responding to a call about a "suspicious person," ended up shooting Mrs. Cook four times. On Tuesday, a Culpeper County jury found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter and other charges, and three days later recommended that he serve three years behind bars.

The authority given to a law enforcement officer, symbolized by a badge and backed up by a gun, is a sacred trust, a promise made to "protect and serve" the public and not misuse the power granted to him. The most serious decision a police officer must make is when to use deadly force. The only justification for pulling that trigger is in defense of self or others.

Harmon-Wright's lawyer claimed the former officer was "protecting innocent lives" from Mrs. Cook, whom he characterized as a "fleeing felon" (really? of what had she been convicted?). The officer himself at one point said his arm was stuck in her window, and later that she tried to sideswipe him and that there was a pedestrian nearby. These claims did not hold up under eyewitness testimony. In fact, said the prosecutor, Harmon-Wright "set himself up as judge, jury, and executioner," killing a woman who apparently posed no mortal threat to anyone.

And so the jury has agreed, finding the former officer guilty. But perhaps swayed by testimony about his Marine Corps service and other admirable chapters of his life, the jurors recommended nothing like the 25 years in prison his conviction might have cost him.

This may or may not be justice, but, as prosecutor Jim Fisher said after the jury's urging of leniency, there are no winners in this sad story. Mrs. Cook lost her life, and her husband recently died. Other family members grieve. Harmon-Wright's wife and son, essentially destitute, are suffering and will continue to suffer. The former officer himself must live with the knowledge that he took a life. And the Culpeper police force, still facing civil lawsuits in the case, must regain the confidence of town residents, some of whose innocence died on that February day.