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Culpeper cop shooting trial: Murder or public defense?

CULPEPER, VA. -- Police Officer Daniel Harmon-Wright fired seven shots at an unarmed woman in a school parking lot last year, killing her. During opening arguments at his trial Wednesday, a prosecutor called the act murder, while a defense attorney for Harmon-Wright said the officer perceived the woman to be a threat.

Responding to a suspicious-person call on Feb. 9, Harmon-Wright approached Cook's Jeep Wrangler in the Epiphany Catholic School parking lot. The uniformed officer asked to see Cook's identification, and she showed her driver's license to him behind a partially rolled-down window.

When Harmon-Wright then reached inside the vehicle to grab her license, Cook rolled up the window, trapping Harmon-Wright's fingers, said special prosecutor Jim Fisher, the Fauquier County commonwealth's attorney. The Jeep also started moving.

According to Fisher: At some point, Harmon-Wright got separated from the Jeep, but he went back up to it and fired two nonfatal shots at 54-year-old Patricia Cook. Then, as she drove away, Harmon-Wright fired five more shots into the rear of the vehicle. One of these shots went through Cook's head while another went through her spine.

"She didn't have a weapon, she didn't have a firearm," Fisher said. "There was no threat."

But according to one of Harmon-Wright's attorneys, Daniel Hawes, the officer fired the first couple of shots while his fingers were still trapped inside the Jeep, in order to set his hand free. Then, when the officer saw the Jeep heading toward the most populated part of Culpeper, Harmon-Wright thought, "This is a threat to the public" and "was required to make a quick decision," Hawes said.

In a recorded interview with a Virginia State Police special agent that was played in court Wednesday, Harmon-Wright said he fired the shots because he thought his life was in danger.

"I don't know what else I could have done," he said.

Harmon-Wright said in the interview that he fired a couple of shots before his hand was freed and continued firing a few more times immediately afterward. But according to Fisher, witnesses said there was a clear break between the periods of gunfire.

Harmon-Wright, 33, is charged with murder, malicious shooting into an occupied vehicle resulting in a death and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.