Star Valley businessman Roy George Haught pleaded guilty to negligent homicide yesterday (Thursday) for his involvement in the 1997 death of Strawberry mechanic James Cooper.
Offered during a court proceeding held in the Gila County Superior Court in Globe, the plea could mean that Haught will spend time in jail. Negligent homicide, a class 4 felony, carries a sentence that ranges from probation to three years and nine months in the Arizona Department of Corrections. The sentencing judge, who has yet to be determined, will have complete discretion as to what sentence Haught receives.
Esther Cooper, wife of James Cooper, was present at the court proceedings and stated her support for Haught's plea agreement during a Friday morning interview.
"It's been long enough," she said. "I think it's time to put this to rest for both sides for the defense, both families, and for our community. Now it's done."
The plea was entered following the granting by Judge Edward Dawson of the defendant's motion for a new trial. That motion alleged that Haught's prior trial counsel was ineffective. The court's decision was made following a review of witness affidavits and oral arguments presented by Dennis McCarthy, chief deputy Gila County attorney, and Arthur Lloyd, Haught's current attorney. Referring to Mr. Haught's former defense counsel at the trial level, Judge Dawson stated "I find that the performance was willfully short of what we expect in serious matters of this nature, woefully."
"Judge Dawson made a very detailed, 30-page ruling about how ineffective this lawyer was," Gila County Attorney Jim Hazel said Friday morning. "Within two weeks we'll have a transcript of the hearing (that we will distribute to the media) ..."
After the court granted the motion for a new trial, Judge Dawson recused himself from further consideration in this matter, saying, "I feel it incumbent upon myself to clear up the issues having to do with the trial because the prosecutor is no longer with us, the defense attorney is no longer with us, the court is the only officer who has been here through the inception and the only one that could adequately resolve the issues of the trial and new trial.
"And having done that," Dawson continued, "I think for the appearances it would be better that another judge take care of this matter henceforth. I have never had a conflict, a personal conflict ... which would, I feel, prevent me from sitting in the matter, but ... I think the appearance of impropriety would be resolved if we have a different court sit on it."
Haught, who owns an excavating company in Star Valley, was found guilty in February 1999 of negligent homicide and aggravated assault crimes deemed by the jury to be "dangerous" in nature, a provision that requires prison time.
During sentencing, however, Judge Dawson disregarded the dangerous crimes element of the verdict, and imposed a lighter sentence. Dawson sentenced Haught to six months in jail with credit for time already served and placed him on five years of probation.
Former Gila County Attorney Jerry DeRose the chief prosecutor in the case at the time immediately filed a motion with the Court of Appeals. The appellate court eventually ruled that "the trial court ... abused its discretion," and sent the case back for resentencing.
Instead, Haught's council requested a Supreme Court ruling, but after inspecting the facts of the case, the court let the Court of Appeals' ruling stand and sent the case back to Gila County for resentencing.