Second manslaughter trial of former Liberty police officer gets underway

June 10, 2004|TODD KLEFFMAN

COLUMBIA — The manslaughter trial of former Liberty police officer Leo "Danny" Cook Jr. got under way for a second time Wednesday, this time in Adair County, where jurors will try to decide if Cook's use of deadly force was justified.

Cook, 40, is charged in the July 2003 shooting death of Leon Brown after the officer responded to a domestic dispute at the home of Brown's mother. Brown, 52, was unarmed, but Cook contends he thought Brown was reaching for a knife or other weapon when he shot him in the chest from close range.

Cook's first trial in Casey County Circuit Court in March ended without a verdict after Circuit Judge James Weddle declared a mistrial when the jury remained deadlocked after 14 hours of deliberations. Jurors said their last vote was 9-3 in favor of acquittal. Commonwealth's Attorney Brian Wright decided to retry the case and it was moved to neighboring Adair County, where the case has received little publicity. Weddle is also presiding over the second trial.


In their opening statements to the jury Wednesday, Wright and defense attorney Steve Schroering both agreed that Brown's death was a tragedy caused by bad decisions.

Wright said that Cook's rushed judgments and quick trigger were to blame.

“Mr. Cook had drawn his weapon within two minutes of arriving on the scene and shot and killed Leon Brown,” Wright told jurors.

Schroering countered that it was Brown who was too aggressive and belligerent, escalating what should have been a routine arrest into a fatal confrontation.

“The last thing Danny Cook wanted to do when he signed up to be a police officer was to take someone's life. But, unfortunately, he was forced to take a life to protect his own,” the Louisville attorney said.

There had been five previous domestic calls involving Brown

Wright's first witness was Liberty Police Sgt. Joey Miller, who testified that he had responded to five separate domestic calls involving Brown earlier that day. Most of the calls came from Brown's girlfriend, Freda Wilson, who shared an apartment with Brown across Trammel Street from Brown's mother. Wilson complained that Brown was drunk and acting belligerent toward her and her children.

Each time Miller arrived at Wilson's apartment he discovered that Brown had retreated to his mother's house, the officer testified. Brown was “highly intoxicated” during each encounter, but Miller said he remained coherent and did not appear to be a danger to anyone so he was not arrested.

Cook, a 14-year police veteran who had been working in Liberty for 10 months, came on duty at 10 p.m. Miller briefed Cook on the trouble earlier in the day between Wilson and Brown, and mentioned that Brown had a history of lawlessness and “fighting with police.”

Over objections from Wright, Weddle allowed Miller to express his opinion to jurors that he considered Brown “a violent man.”

“Whether this man had an aggressive, violent reputation is highly relevant to this case,” Weddle said.

Dispatch records revealed that the sixth and final call from Wilson's residence came at 10:02 p.m. and included screaming and children shouting “Quit hitting my mom” in the background. Cook radioed that he was on the scene at 10:04 p.m. After calling for backup, Cook radioed again at 10:06 p.m. to report a shot had been fired, the dispatch log showed.

According to Wright, Cook arrived at the scene to see Brown crossing Trammel Street and go into his mother's house. The officer immediately followed Brown into the house and attempted to arrest him, but the 6’4”, 300-pound Brown was too strong for him to subdue.

Pepper spray in his face "didn't faze him"

As Brown moved into the kitchen, Cook unleashed a stream of pepper spray “directly into his face but it didn’t faze him,” Wright told jurors. Brown stood at the kitchen sink with his back to Cook and flung a ceramic dinner plate at the officer that hit him in the shoulder. Two small paring knives were visible on the counter, testimony revealed.

Cook drew his weapon and shouted at Brown to show his hands and get on the floor. When Brown refused the order and whirled toward Cook, the officer fired a single shot from his 40-caliber Glock pistol, testimony revealed. Cook immediately radioed for medical help, Schroering said, including a helicopter to transport Brown to the University of Kentucky Medical Center, where he died seven hours later.

Miller and other officers said they quickly responded to Cook’s call for backup and were outside on Trammel Street when they heard a shot fired.

During her testimony, Wilson tried to tone down Brown’s behavior that day, saying they only had minor verbal arguments and she did not feel threatened. But under cross examination from Schroering, Wilson agreed with the defense attorney’s characterization that “the situation was out of control the last time Leon was there.”

Cook is expected to take the stand in his own defense today. Wright said he believes testimony will conclude and the case will go to the jury this afternoon.

Cook, who used to live in Danville, now resides in Louisville. He has been unemployed since he was terminated by the Liberty Police Department after being indicted for second-degree manslaughter by a Casey County grand jury, said his sister, Lori Cook.

“It’s hard to find work when you’ve got a manslaughter indictment hanging over you,” Lori Cook said.

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