RALEIGH — Deputies had just escorted Brad Cooper out of a Wake County courtroom to a life in prison for murdering his wife, Nancy, when her parents took a step - a knowing and empathetic step - to heal a great wound.
Garry Rentz, the father of Nancy Cooper, walked across the courtroom, his arm outstretched toward Terry Cooper, the father of the man just convicted of murder. "I just said, 'Sorry for your loss,' " Rentz said.
Donna Rentz, Nancy Cooper's mother, followed.
She hugged Carol Cooper, whose son had just been convicted of first-degree murder after one of Wake County's most protracted trials in recent history.
They were two sets of grandparents with two common concerns - Bella and Katie Cooper, the 7-year-old and 4-year-old who have suffered perhaps the greatest loss in a case that touched the Triangle and beyond.
"You feel for them," Garry Rentz said. "You feel like a parent."
As both families move forward, the Rentzes said, they hoped that the Coopers would be a part of their granddaughters' lives.
"We want that," Donna Rentz said. "They need that."
For much of Thursday, the Rentzes and the Coopers were in the same spots they have been in for nearly two months. Brad Cooper's parents sat behind him and his defense team as they tried to persuade a jury that it was the Cary police department that should be on trial, not their client.
Nancy Cooper's parents sat behind prosecutors with their son, Jeff, and daughter, Krista Lister, who lost her twin sister, often by their side. "This is justice for Nancy," an emotional Donna Rentz said after the verdict.
The defense plans to appeal.
"We are disappointed at the jury's verdict, and believed the case for Brad's innocence was strong," attorneys Howard Kurtz and Robert Trenkle said in a prepared statement. "We feel that, had the jury been permitted to hear the testimony of our computer experts, the verdict likely would have been different. It is our belief that the appellate issues are strong and we hope to have another chance to exonerate our client in the future."
The defense attacked the Cary police department, arguing that its officers conducted an inept and dishonest investigation. They tried to convince jurors that the Cary police department that mistakenly erased Nancy Cooper's cellphone was savvy enough to plant evidence in their client's computer.
"I think the jury has spoken," District Attorney Colon Willoughby said. "The only thing that was dishonest about this was the defendant's defense. The jury was not swayed by those shenanigans."
Evidence from a laptop
After weeks of testimony about the Coopers' crumbling marriage from neighbors, family and friends, and questions about the strength of their criminal case, prosecutors brought in a key piece of evidence to tie their suspect to the crime scene.
Deep inside a laptop that Brad Cooper used at work were files that, when pieced together, showed a satellite image of the remote site where Nancy Cooper's body was found.
The defense was unsuccessful in their attempts to bring several computer experts to the stand to challenge the prosecution's computer evidence. Judge Paul Gessner would not allow the two men called by the defense to testify as experts.
Assistant District Attorney Howard Cummings, who used the last three minutes of his dramatic closing arguments to show how long it would take for someone to die from strangulation, praised the jury.
Prosecutors contended that their case was straightforward.
They argued that Brad Cooper, troubled by his wife's plans to leave him and move back to their native Canada with their two girls, plotted murder.
They say he strangled Nancy Cooper early on July 12, 2008, the day after searching for a remote spot to dump her body. They contend he left her body, clad only in a sports bra, near a drainage ditch in an unfinished neighborhood.
They say he faked a call from his home phone to his cellphone at a time when his image would be captured on grocery store surveillance cameras as part of a coverup.
Prosecutors urged jurors to consider inconsistencies in Brad Cooper's explanations for why his wife was missing on July 12, 2008. They urged jurors to consider lies he told about an extramarital affair. They asked them to weigh all the things he didn't do - attend memorial services, call Nancy Cooper's family or his family after she was reported missing.
"I was confident the jurors had taken enough notes, and that between the 12 of them, they knew all the answers to all the questions," Cummings said after the verdict.
What puzzled him, though, was why Pat Bazemore, the Cary police chief, did not make even one appearance at the nearly eight-week trial while defense attorneys railed against her department day after day.
"I'm disappointed that she was not here," Cummings said. "Especially when her officers were accused of intentional misconduct."
Jury ducks out quickly
The jury, two men and 10 women, began deliberations Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. They left the courtroom quickly Thursday without elaborating on their verdict.
Before jurors left, the judge thanked them for their service - a lengthy stay that prompted an unusual and pointed note last week from jurors telling the judge they were "ready for this to be over soon!"
But the account of what happened between Brad and Nancy Cooper is likely to be told and retold in the coming weeks and months.
"I have reason to believe this issue will be the subject of a television documentary and a book," Gessner told the jury before releasing them.
Jurors are now at liberty to talk freely about a case they have been prohibited from discussing with family and friends for the past two months. But Gessner urged them to say only what they would be comfortable saying in front of other jurors if they choose to publicly discuss the trial or their deliberations.
"This case, like many of the cases we see, has not been a happy case," Gessner said. "If you're bothered by what you've experienced in this case, you're not alone."
Snapshot of suburban life
The trial, which often seemed to have little to do with murder and more to do with extramarital trysts, BMWs, big houses, six-figure salaries, the Triangle's dot-com boom and neighborhood parties, provided a glimpse of Cary suburbia that would cause few Chambers of Commerce to boast.
In the Cary circles in which the Coopers socialized, there were allegations of furtive, flirtatious glances developing into duplicitous relationships. Defense attorneys tried to portray the groups as gossipy cliques, stay-at-home moms who did little staying at home.
The Rentzes, on Thursday, offered a different picture of the Triangle town where their daughter Nancy was violently taken from them.
The mayor, police chief, Cary detectives and others, Garry Rentz said, have answered their family's every call. Nancy Cooper's large circle of friends, he said, have become like daughters and sons to them.
North Carolina is not a place they will steer clear of as they move forward with their lives without Nancy Cooper. They decided, as a family, long before the jury returned the guilty verdict, how they planned to live with the loss of their loved one.
"We decided we would not deal with ourselves as victims, we would rather deal with ourselves as survivors," Garry Rentz said.
What they have not decided, they said, is how they will tell Bella and Katie Cooper, the youngest survivors among them, what happened between Brad and Nancy Cooper.
"It's not a today answer," Garry Rentz told reporters after the trial. "It's one we walk carefully toward."
The girls have been in Canada with family throughout the trial.
Krista Lister, who now bears the responsibility of raising her twin sister's children, will be happy to return to Canada for a Mother's Day that will be bittersweet.
Some day, she hopes to hear from the man her twin described as "the safe guy, the guy who wouldn't cheat on her, the best friend, the guy who wouldn't hurt her."
Now Brad Cooper is sentenced to life in prison for strangling Nancy Cooper to death.
"I've always wanted to know why," Krista Lister said.
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