- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2003

If anybody can save sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo from the death penalty, it might be Craig S. Cooley, the folksy Richmond lawyer also considered the best defense attorney in the state.

Mr. Cooley, one of two lead attorneys for Mr. Malvo, downplays his own accomplishments and skill. But his easy, humble style cannot hide that he is one of the most accomplished capital murder defense lawyers in Virginia, which has had more executions than any state except Texas since 1976.

On his resume, Mr. Cooley lists just one special accomplishment. “I have lost to every prosecutor known to exist in central Virginia,” the resume reads. “This accomplishment was not by design.”

The resume does not mention that in 59 state murder trials, he has helped defendants avoid the death penalty 58 times over the past 26 years.

Mr. Cooley grew up in the Shenandoah Valley as the son of a high school principal. An associate calls him a “gentleman Virginia lawyer.”

Though Mr. Cooley, 56, has an impressive record, none of the cases has brought him the attention that the sniper trial will likely bring.

Mr. Malvo, his 18-year-old client from Jamaica, is accused of one of the most publicized, horrific crime sprees in U.S. history. And together he and Mr. Cooley must face the most experienced prosecutor in the state, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert F. Horan, who has sent six criminals to death row in 36 years.

Mr. Malvo and fellow defendant John Allen Muhammad, 42, have been linked to the killing of 10 persons and the wounding of three others during a three-week spree in October. They also have been linked to at least six other shootings across the country. Both are charged with two counts of capital murder.

Mr. Malvo is being tried Nov. 10 for the Oct. 14, 2002, slaying of Linda Franklin, 47, in Falls Church. Mr. Muhammad is being tried Oct. 14 for the Oct. 9, 2002, killing of Dean H. Meyers, 53, in Manassas. The trials were moved to southeastern Virginia.

Mr. Malvo reportedly has told federal prison guards and a Fairfax detective on separate occasions that he committed several of the shootings.

Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Jane Marum Roush ruled last week that Mr. Malvo’s statements to the guards would be allowed at trial. In January, she appointed Mr. Cooley to the team of Northern Virginia lawyers assembled by Fairfax attorney Michael S. Arif to defend Mr. Malvo.

The judge needed somebody with “a lot of capital experience, a lot of gray hair and no ego,” Mr. Cooley told The Washington Times in an interview. “I told her that my lack of ego was well-earned. … Anybody in my line of work loses frequently. That has a very humbling effect.”

Mr. Malvo’s defense team will argue their client was “under the spell” of Mr. Muhammad. Mr. Arif will handle most of the arguments during the first phase of the trial, when the jury decides strictly whether Mr. Malvo is guilty or innocent.

If Mr. Malvo is found guilty of capital murder, Mr. Cooley will present mitigating factors in the sentencing phase and argue against the death penalty.

Friends and other associates say Mr. Cooley’s mix of honesty and courtroom skills will give Mr. Malvo a chance at avoiding the death penalty.

Those who know Mr. Cooley say his strengths are his preparation and ability to win the trust of a jury.

Mr. Cooley will be the foil to Mr. Horan, who U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft called “tough” and who is known for his aggressiveness. Mr. Horan declined to comment for this story.

Mr. Cooley is a “down-home country boy, but you wouldn’t know it by seeing him in the courtroom. He’s a pretty sophisticated trial lawyer,” said Christopher J. Collins, a Richmond defense lawyer who has tried cases with Mr. Cooley.

He also said that during a capital murder trial in Richmond, a prosecutor was waving around the victim’s bloody shirt during closing arguments, then set it down on top of the court clerk’s Bible. As Mr. Cooley rose to speak, he subtly lifted the shirt off the Bible, not knowing there were a few Southern Baptists on the jury but hoping for a positive effect.

The defendant was acquitted, and the Baptist jurors said afterward that Mr. Cooley’s small gesture convinced them that “a God-fearing lawyer would not be defending a guilty man.”

Mr. Cooley, a father of three grown children, acknowledges that preparation has been key to his success, but admits to having some luck. “I am a person of average intellect and work very hard to get prepared,” he said. “I wish I was brilliant. I’m not.”

Mr. Cooley also said he struggled with the decision to take the case.

“My wife and I did a lot of soul-searching before I agreed to take it,” he said. “I knew it would be a very demanding process and that it would take a great deal of time away from my family and my regular practice. I also knew it would be fairly unpopular.”

His decision was ultimately based upon his opposition to the execution of juvenile defendants. Even though Mr. Malvo is 18, he was 17 at the time of the shootings.

“If you don’t have the courage to stand up and participate in a case like this, I think I would have regretted it for the rest of my life,” Mr. Cooley said.

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