Prosecutors File Appeal On Haught Sentence


Strawberry -- The coffee shops and cafin this close-knit mountain community are boiling with outrage this week over what residents here consider a miscarriage of justice in the death of popular Strawberry resident Jim Cooper.

They may find some solace, however, in a prosecutor's motion to appeal the sentence given to Roy Haught of Star Valley for his role in the death of Cooper.

Last week, Gila County Superior Court Judge Edd Dawson overruled a jury verdict that required Star Valley businessman Roy George Haught to serve time in prison for killing Cooper.

Case prosecutors appealed the judge's decision March 12 to the state Court of Appeals, Division 2 in Tucson.

The appellate court will review the case, in which Haught was found guilty Feb. 16 of the "dangerous crimes" of negligent homicide and aggravated assault, to decide whether the ruling was fair. The appeals court can endorse all or part of the sentencing or return the case to court for a new sentencing hearing. An appeal can take as long as two years.

The judge's decision -- to dismiss the jury's finding that Haught committed a "dangerous crime," which is a criminal classification that requires mandatory prison time -- is unusual, professor of law Gary Lowenthal of Arizona State University said.

"It's not typical for a judge to dismiss an allegation of dangerousness," he said, "but the judge has the authority under the rules to do it.

"By dismissing an allegation of dangerousness, what the trial judge has done is given himself more discretion to sentence and make the defendant probation-eligible. With a finding of dangerousness in an ag-assault or negligent homicide, it's mandatory prison."

Dawson sentenced Haught, a Star Valley businessman and a member of a pioneer ranching family that helped settle Tonto Basin, to five years probation and six months in jail with credit for nearly a month served.

Haught, who was transferred to the Gila County jail in Payson, is eligible for work furlough and is back to work this week.

Joanne Chilcoat of Payson, one of the jurors for Haught's trial, said she was stunned by the judge's decision because the jury was convinced Haught acted recklessly and dangerously when he got into a fight with Cooper the night of Dec. 14, 1997.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "As far as I'm concerned that was no sentence at all. I think he should have served some time.

"We as jurors didn't make up our minds about whether he was guilty of any crime until we listened to all of the evidence. After we had all the evidence, we came to the conclusion that he did kill this man, obviously. It was pretty clear cut.

"It's hard to believe that someone can commit a crime and just because they're a good husband or a good father or have done a lot of volunteer work or handed over a lot of money, they can get away with it."

Other jurors declined to comment or could not be reached.

But Dawson said he is confident he made the right decision.

"Ninety percent of the decisions I make are unpopular with someone and some are unpopular with everyone," he said. "Nobody made any effort to influence me in any way. The politics and the popularity (of Haught) and the influence played zero in my mind.

"I'm sad that people have the wrong idea. This was strictly a legal interpretation of what is or isn't a dangerous offense. The Court of Appeals is in a position to decide that now and (regardless of its decision) we won't have to retry the case. If my decision is overturned, we'll only have to change the sentencing.

"Once probation was an option, however, the mitigating factors were so overwhelming, I feel few judges in the state would have sentenced him to prison. Because of his whole life, I think any judge would have decided this wasn't the kind of man they wanted to send to prison for a long time."

Haught declined to comment from jail Thursday on the trial or the sentencing.

But Tim Hughes, a former DPS officer and one of Haught's longtime friends, said he didn't think Haught should have been put on trial at all.

"This was a tragic, tragic accident," he said, "and there were two victims in this thing -- Jim and Roy.

"From everything I've heard, Jim was a helluva nice guy, and I have all the sympathy in the world for the Cooper family, but there's culpability on both sides.

"If someone stops in the middle of the road, that's illegal. If someone throws a punch at somebody, that's illegal. Had Jim Cooper not stopped in the middle of the road and thrown the first punch and gone into his driveway, this probably never would have happened.

"There are two ways to look at this thing," he said. "To compound the tragedy (with a prison sentence) would have been crazy.

"Roy is a good person who works hard and helps people," he said. He's as good as gold. He's dead honest, and if he gives you his word, it's as good as a written contract."

Bad feelings in P-S
A group of residents in Pine and Strawberry, who are organizing a petition drive to draw state attention to the ruling, consider the judge's decision a slap in the face to Cooper -- who they remember as a sweet, gentle man who was always ready with a handshake or a helping hand.

"People are angry with the sentence," resident Mike Anderson said. "It's just not appropriate. A conviction like that just doesn't rate a six-month sentence in county jail. It rates the mandatory prison sentence.

"I think the message this sends to northern Gila County is that if you belong to a prominent family, you can kill someone and get six months. There's no logic in that sentence and the message it sends."

Cooper's stepdaughter, Vanessa Beckham said the judge's sentence has only served to compound her family's grief.

"I think it's unfair that my dad lost his life, we've had to deal with his death and now, we have to deal with this injustice," she said. "I'm just genuinely bothered by the fact that he killed someone and I don't think those people are sorry at all.

"They think he got too much time with six months. I think they feel we're a bunch of hillbillies from the mountains and we should just sit around and take it because we're not one of them."

Cooper's widow, Esther, said she is disheartened by the sentence, which she was hoping would bring some closure to her husband's death.

"We, as the Cooper family, aren't saying Roy is a bad man, husband or father," she said. "I don't know him. All we wanted is for him to stand up like a man and take responsibility for what he did, but he didn't do that.

"We have been completely devastated by this. We've suffered a loss that we will suffer the rest of our lives. There's nothing in this world that's going to bring him back. There's a lot of frustration, a lot of anger, but with God's strength, we'll get through. I don't know how we'll get through, but we will.

"What I've lost, I can't replace. I've lost my best friend, my confidant. I've lost part of my heart."

The prosecution's appeal could be heard before the Court of Appeals in Tucson as early as mid-September.

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