RALEIGH — Raymond Cook today was sentenced to at least three years in prison for his role in the Sept. 11, 2009, crash that ended the life of an aspiring ballerina.
The sentencing came after a Wake County jury found Cook guilty of involuntary manslaughter, felony death by motor vehicle and driving while impaired in connection with the crash that killed Elena Bright Shapiro.
The verdict was returned after nearly 10 hours of deliberation over three days.
The courtroom was quiet as the clerk read the findings of the seven women and five men.
Under North Carolina law, a person may not be sentenced for both involuntary manslaughter and felony death by motor vehicle.
Judge Osmond Smith said he planned to sentence Cook under the felony death by motor vehicle conviction, a verdict that gives him leeway to consider such aggravating factors as whether the defendant drove in a manner to endanger more than one life, as prosecutors contended.
In a brief 10-minute session shortly after rendering their verdicts, the jury found Cook guilty of the aggravating factor.
While Cook is expected to spend at least three years behind bars, he could spend up to 4 1/2 years, based on the judge's ruling today.
During deliberations, jurors asked for a large white pad of paper, magic markers and coffee.
The jurors sent two notes to the judge on Monday, the second day of deliberation. One was a request to take an hour and 15-minute lunch break. The second was the legal definition of "mischief" and for clarification of what "utterly without regard for human life."
The judge brought the jury in shortly after 3 p.m. and elaborated on the definition of mischief, then sent them back to deliberate further behind closed doors.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed in passionate closing arguments on Friday the crash that ended the life of Shapiro, a Carolina Ballet apprentice, was "no accident."
They differed, though, on whether Cook, the doctor on trial for the past two weeks, was guilty of second-degree murder, as prosecutors contended.
Jeff Cruden, the assistant district attorney who shepherded the case through trial, tried to persuade jurors that Cook acted with malice when he consumed alcohol and got behind the wheel of his Mercedes in an inebriated state.
Cruden contended that Cook zipped along North Raleigh streets at speeds of 75 to 100 miles per hour before slamming into the back of Shapiro's silver Hyundai before as she turned from Lead Mine Road onto Strickland Road.
"He's a doctor, which comes with certain privileges for sure," Cruden said. "But it also comes with certain responsibilities. This is not an accident. This is inevitable."
Roger Smith Jr., who got the final word with the jury, urged the jurors to try to set aside their sadness for the Shapiro family. He urged them to rise above the anger boiling inside them for Cook.
Cook was impaired by alcohol the last night of Shapiro's life, Smith acknowledged. Cook also traveled at higher than the posted speed, Smith said.
"This was no accident," Smith said. "Of course this wasn't an accident. This was not murder, either." Cruden said the crux of the murder case could be summed up in a word "malice."
"We are two weeks into a trial, and it all turns on one word," Cruden said in his 80-minute closing argument. "It's not that hatred, ill-will or spite that you would often expect."
To prove malice under North Carolina law, prosecutors had to show the defendant intended to drive in a reckless manner that reflected knowledge that injury or death would likely result.
The prosecutors were the only ones to put on evidence in the two-week trial.
By not calling witnesses, the defense team assured themselves the last argument with jurors.
The defense challenged blood tests done in the hospital the night of the accident that showed Cook's blood-alcohol content as 0.24, three times the illegal limit of 0.08. The hospital lab analysts tested the more concentrated blood serum, not whole blood which law enforcement tested.
Law enforcement tests showed Cook's blood-alcohol content at 0.19, more than twice the 0.08 illegal limit. "We contend right now he was impaired," Smith said. "This man was impaired, but I want you folks to analyze this case on the real facts."
But was he stumbling drunk and staggering, as prosecutors contended?
Only two people, Smith contended, testified over the course of two weeks and 30 witnesses that Cook was stumbling and staggering at Piper's Tavern, the last place he was before the collision on Strickland Road. Piper's, Smith pointed out, was packed with an overflow crowd that night. Seventy to 80 people were on the patio of the North Raleigh pub and others were in the restaurant.
"Where are all the people to confirm stumbling and staggering?" Smith asked.
Smith also challenged the testimony of a Mercedes mechanic and crash scene reconstruction officer from the Raleigh police department that estimated Cook's speed to be at least 75 miles per hour and perhaps more than 80 miles per hour before the deadly impact.
He contended that experts called by prosecutors manipulated data to offer jurors a worst-case scenario. "This man had too much to drink, he drove too fast," Smith said. "There were tragic consequences for Elena Shapiro. ... That's not malice."
Smith reiterated that Cook tried to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation at the accident scene, putting his naked lips on the bloodied face of Shapiro.
Cruden argued that Cook had not asked in the hours after the accident whether Shapiro was alive. He said Cook's efforts to resuscitate the aspiring dancer were something a judge could consider in sentencing and offer relief there.
But Smith argued that Cook was not a murderer.
"The burden remains on the state to prove to you beyond a reasonable doubt that this is a malicious killing," Smith said.
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