No one kept eye on ex-convict

After 12 years locked up for armed robbery and an escape from prison, Samuel James Cooper Jr. walked out of Central Prison in February 2006 with $45 from the state and no official supervision.

Within a few months, police think he began a string of killings and robberies, mostly in Raleigh, that they say eventually took the lives of five men.

"He turned out to be a more sophisticated criminal," said Khurram Tariq, the 24-year-old son of one of those men, Tariq Hussain, who died behind the counter of his convenience store. "We need to do something."

Cooper, 30, was charged Tuesday with murder in connection with the May 12, 2006, killing of Osama "Samuel" Haj-Hussein; the June 3, 2006, death of LeRoy Jernigan; the April 27 killing of Timothy Barnwell; the Oct. 12 death of Ricky High; and the killing of Hussain on Oct. 14.

Cooper was released from prison last year without supervision, despite two escape attempts and a litany of infractions behind bars.

A 2006 study by the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, created by the legislature, found that nearly 50 percent of released prisoners were re-arrested within three years. Susan Katzenelson, executive director of the commission, said members are aware of the high recidivism rate and the need for programs to help inmates adjust to life after prison.

"We are getting back our convicted," Katzenelson said.

Cooper entered the correctional system in May 1994, when he was 17 and violated his probation on a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, said Keith Acree, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Correction.

Cooper spent a week inside and was then paroled. Within four months, he was back behind bars for armed robbery. A Wake County judge handed him a 20-year sentence.

'Fair sentencing'

Cooper was sentenced under a now defunct system called "fair sentencing," which offered credit of one day off a term for every day an inmate didn't get in trouble and other credits. Cooper served eight years for the robbery charge.

"He served 3,086 days out of 7,300," Acree said. "It's not unusual for fair sentencing at all."

Cooper served less than 40 percent of his 20-year sentence.

"People served maybe a fifth of the sentence that was imposed by the judges," Katzenelson said about the fair sentencing system. "The idea was to regain the respect of the public and the trust of the public."

Fair sentencing rules were replaced in 1994 by the current system, which eliminated parole and instituted mandatory minimum sentences, said Katzenelson.

While in prison during the eight years he spent on his armed robbery charge, Cooper escaped while on a work detail, attacked an elderly man and stole his car. At his sentencing for the escape, he punched a deputy in the face. Despite that and 20 other infractions, he was also given nearly 10 years of credit for various types of good behavior, such as working while in prison and having stretches of time without infractions, Acree said.

Those infractions earned him new criminal charges, which he began serving immediately at the expiration of the robbery charge. Because he was convicted of low-level felonies, Cooper was not eligible for post-release supervision, according to Acree and Katzenelson.

Convicts of high-level felonies, crimes that vary from murder to some burglaries, can get nine months of supervision under the current system, said Mary Harrop, spokeswoman for the Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission. The commission oversees 2,108 people under that system and 1,984 felons paroled on crimes committed before 1994, she said.

The prison population is 39,000, Katzenelson said. Concern about how those prisoners will readjust to society continues, with few programs to advise convicts how to get a job and deal with mental health or substance abuse, said Lao Rubert, with the nonprofit Carolina Justice Policy Center, based in Durham. The result, in some cases, can be convicts committing more, and more serious, crimes.

"We know that you can't just ignore this problem," Rubert said. "People die because of it."

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