Starbucks Suspect Recanted before Confession Announced
by DCDave

That's what the headlines should have read, and it should have been on the front page of the Washington newspapers. Instead, fragments of the story were buried away on the inside pages of the "Metro" section and the stories had bland, misleading headlines.

We're talking here about a very high profile triple murder of three young Starbucks employees in the fashionable Georgetown section of our nation's capital on Sunday evening, July 6, 1997. One of them, the night manager, Mary Caitrin Mahoney, shot five times, had been a politically active Democrat who had worked as an intern in the White House in the first year of the Clinton administration. According to Progressive Review editor, Sam Smith, an obituary in the Washington Blade reported that Mahoney, 24, had been a founder of the Baltimore Lesbian Avengers, had also founded a women's issues discussion group at Towson State University, and was a board member of the 31st Street Bookstore in Baltimore. The other two slain were Emory Allen Evans, 25, and Aaron David Goodrich, 18.

For almost three years the pressure had grown for the police to solve the case and bring the killer or killers to justice. When they finally thought the police had their perpetrator, a 30-year-old black man with a petty criminal record by the name of Carl Derek Cooper, the newspapers exhibited none of the reticence they are showing now.

"Suspect admits to casing Starbucks before crime. Purposely chose 4th of July weekend," read the headline of the front-page article in the March 18, 1999, Washington Times upon the unsealing of a purported affidavit of confession. The Washington Post headlined it this way on their front page, "Starbucks Manager Resisted Robber, Court is Told. Suspect Described Killing Three Workers in Dispute Over Keys, Affidavit Says." Each of them had details of how the man said he had done it. Farfetched though the story might have sounded to the critical reader (See my "Starbucks Fall-Back Fall Guy"), the impression given was that the matter was pretty well wrapped up. The man had confessed, after all, and the story had been positioned to make sure that very few people missed it. It was also all over the local radio and TV news programs.

Now we get "Agent quizzed in Starbucks hearing" on page C3 of the January 13, 2000, Washington Times and "Statements Challenged in Starbucks Triple Slaying" on page B2 of The Washington Post the same day. Not until the 11th paragraph of the 13-paragraph Times article do you get to the real news, the item that should have merited a front-page headline:

"Mr. Cooper confessed to the killings to Prince George's County detectives after he was taken to Maryland, but [FBI Agent Bradley J.] Garrett testified yesterday that Mr. Cooper recanted his confessions when he returned to the District on March 16. Mr. Cooper was brought back to the District after being charged with the Starbucks killings.

"He said: I admitted to everything under the sun. I said what they wanted me to say. They didn't advise me of my rights. My statements will be suppressed. I know my rights. Mr. Garrett testified regarding what Mr. Cooper told him."

There you have it. Two days before the police and the press ballyhooed it, the confession, which was elicited during more than 50 hours of questioning without the suspect's lawyer present, was disavowed by the suspect, Cooper. He had taken it back as soon as he was out of the custody of the Prince George's County police.

What has happened here is akin to the announcement of a victor in a horse race after the victory has already been reversed on appeal. It is news manipulation of the most inexcusable variety.

Oh, one might argue, we don't know that the newspapers knowingly withheld this information. But they are behaving very peculiarly if they didn't. Where is their outrage at the FBI for their being used and misled into reporting what was essentially false information, false because it was misleadingly incomplete? Certainly Garrett told his superiors that Cooper had recanted. And one can't help but notice that the newspapers have gone along with every implausible police flip and flop in the case as though they were every bit as much police spokesmen as those who carry the title. Until the newspapers begin to put at least a tiny bit of daylight between themselves and the police in important cases such as this, they must share every bit of the blame due the police for any false information that is put out.

But the newspapers are coming clean now, aren't they? Not exactly. First, notice how the stories are buried away in the newspapers and the real meat of the stories is buried away further in the body of the stories. Second, notice that it is I, not the Times writer, Jim Keary, the same lead crime-beat reporter whose article appeared on the front page on March 18, who reminds you of the relative timing of the confession story and the recantation. He slipped up and the truth got out in spite of his reporting, not because of it.

The Post (Bill Miller) also wrote of the recantation. They did it more graphically and dramatically, but less revealingly. Maybe that's why their agents, er, reporters get paid more. First, in the second paragraph:

"Carl Derek Cooper, who made the incriminating statements in March during four days of interrogation by authorities, now contends that he lied under extreme pressure. An FBI agent testified yesterday that Cooper eventually disavowed the admissions and that Cooper said, I swear on my father's grave and my son's life that I didn't do Starbucks. "

The subject is picked up for the second and final time in the ninth paragraph:

"FBI agent Bradley J. Garrett, who questioned Cooper about the Starbucks slayings soon after Cooper's March 1 arrest, quoted him as saying, Killing someone is not my style and said the denials continued for more than six hours, ending the first interrogation. Garrett said that when he next questioned Cooper, the suspect disavowed incriminating statements he had given to Prince George's police."

The Second Day

In the interests of full disclosure, we must report that in the second day of hearings into the admissibility of the Cooper confession, the police appeared to make up some of the ground lost the first day. "Voice-stress test led to Starbucks confession," said the Washington Times headline over an article at the bottom of page C2 (January 14, 2000).

It begins, "After a voice-stress analysis SHOWED that Carl D. Cooper was lying, he admitted killing three Georgetown Starbucks employees, testimony yesterday in federal court SHOWED." (Emphasis obviously added.)

Six paragraphs later we find, "The voice stress-analysis test is a form of lie detection. The results of the tests usually are not admissible during trial, but were admissible in yesterday's pretrial evidentiary hearing."

So, even from the most objective of operators, we can't with any great confidence talk about what a voice-stress analyzer "shows," only what it indicates. Even less can we talk about what testimony about it or anything else "shows," especially when it is hardly from a disinterested party. One is tempted at this point to say that this reporting shows that the reporter is nothing but a propagandist shilling for the police, but the temptation will be resisted.

Four more paragraphs down we find, "Sgt. [Joseph] McCann [of Prince George's County, Maryland] testified that he was trying to interview Mr. Cooper about the shooting of Officer Bruce Howard, who was wounded during a robbery, but Mr. Cooper wanted to talk about Starbucks. He said Mr. Cooper wanted to take the voice stress-analysis test because he felt the test would clear him in the Starbucks killings."

At this point the objective reader must wonder why Cooper would have felt that way if, in fact, he were not, indeed, innocent. But long before he could get that far, the well of objectivity had been poisoned by the headline, the opening paragraph, and statements not quotations like the following from the reporter: "Mr. Cooper first denied shooting anyone, admitting only that he was a lookout for a botched robbery. Then after being caught in a web of lies he admitted gunning down the three employees." There is no further elaboration on what constituted the web of lies and how Cooper was caught, except to say that he was caught by the amazing machine.

Curiously, though perhaps prudently, The Washington Post in their reporting on the second day of the judicial hearing, makes no mention of the voice-stress business. Their headline on page B-4, January 14, 2000, is "'He Was Willing to Talk. Police Deny Pressuring Suspect in Starbucks Triple Slaying," and Bill Miller is once again the writer. Citing the testimony of three policemen, the article indicates that Cooper's confession was given freely without pressure of any kind being applied to him and that he had waived his right to an attorney when he made his admissions.

They say that he signed seven written statements, most in his own handwriting, in which he agreed to talk without benefit of a lawyer over the period of four days in which he was questioned.

A quickly recanted confession describing a highly implausible murder scenario combined with not one iota of physical evidence would seem to be a very weak basis for carrying forward a first-degree murder prosecution. At this stage of the process all that is at issue is the admissibility of the confession, however. Without it, the government has no case, no matter how much freedom various felons might buy to testify against the accused. That is reason enough to conclude that Senior U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green will certainly declare that the statements that Cooper made between his initial and final denials are admissible in court, and nobody can say that the newspapers didn't do their part in preparing the public for it.

David Martin
January 16, 2000

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