Monday, July 30, 2007
Court Overrules Governor, Orders Release of Wife-Killer
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision that a man who admitted killing his wife after she ridiculed his inability to perform sexually, and threatened to tell his mother he was “queer,” was unsuitable for parole was unsupported by any evidence, the First District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
Div. Two ordered that Peter George Cooper be granted immediate parole, rejecting the governor’s findings that Cooper’s offense was particularly heinous and that he failed to appreciate the seriousness of the crime.
Cooper, a self-employed computer consultant, killed his wife Joan Harwitt at their San Mateo home in 1986. After initially reporting her missing after a shopping trip, and after being interviewed by the police several times over the next four days, Cooper confessed.
He explained that he and his wife had difficulties resulting from his treatment for alcoholism and reduced sex drive. She criticized his disinterest in sex, loudly and in graphic language, until he became enraged, he said.
After her “catastrophic” threat to tell his mother about his problems, he said, he screamed back that he was not going to take it anymore. When she suggested that he “go out and get a queer little boy just like you,” he said, he took a sledgehammer that he had been using to prop open the door to the garage, where he had been working, and struck her several times.
Medical testimony at trial indicated that the victim lived for 20 to 30 minutes after the attack and might have survived with immediate care. Instead, Cooper stuffed her into the trunk of her car, which he left at an airport parking garage.
He was convicted of second degree murder with a dangerous weapon and sentenced to 16 years to life in prison. He has been an inmate since July 1987.
In recommending his release last year, the Board of Prison Terms found that he had never violated prison rules, had no other history of serious criminality, has participated in numerous vocational and self-improvement programs, had favorable psychological reports and realistic post-release plans, and was remorseful regarding the crime.
The board also noted that the district attorney, trial judge, and victim’s family had taken no position on release, while the San Mateo Police Department had objected in a form letter.
Schwarzenegger, however, vetoed the board’s decision, emphasizing the brutality of the murder, and Cooper’s depravity in failing to seek help for the victim and in attempting to cover up the crime.
A San Mateo Superior Court judge summarily denied Cooper’s petition for habeas corpus relief from the governor’s decision. The Court of Appeal, however, found that the petition, filed in pro per, raised substantial issues justifying appointment of counsel and a decision on the merits.
Justice James Lambden, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the governor’s decision could not stand because there was no evidence in the record before the board to support it.
Schwarzenegger, he explained, relied in part on statements made during a prior board hearing suggesting that Cooper was dangerous because of a “need to be in control.” But only the record of the hearing under review may be considered under the constitutional provision allowing the governor to veto a parole decision, the justice explained.
As for the gravity of the murder, Lambden agreed that the crime was “callous,” but said the board and the governor were also required to consider the stress that Cooper was acting under and said it was “arbitrary and capricious” for Schwarzenegger to ignore that aspect of the case when all other relevant factors, including his age, showing of remorse, social history, and performance in prison, support a finding of suitability for release.
The case is In re Cooper, A116437.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company