The Shenandoah Valley Lawyer
Everyone is impressed with Craig Cooley—except Craig Cooley
Published in 2006 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine
on June 23, 2006
Updated on November 3, 2016
Although Craig S. Cooley has tried more than 500 murder cases in his career, he hardly fits the image of a grandstanding trial lawyer. His office is a simple one-story cream-colored brick building on busy Idlewood Avenue in Richmond. Though a plastic clock on the front door reads “Back at 3:00,” the door is open and the receptionist is busy fielding phone calls. The waiting room consists of two sturdy Crate and Barrel-style loveseats and matching coffee table. The furniture feels indestructible — a welcome omen for clients whose lives are falling apart.
Cooley, a tall man with a mustache and a mop of graying hair, soon returns from court, ambling through the back door and up the corridor. He offers coffee to his guests and serves it in the conference room. Like many lawyers, he first considered the profession after seeing Gregory Peck play Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, but at least one expert witness compares him to another fictional country lawyer.
“He reminds me of Matlock, the lawyer played by Andy Griffith: a low-key, persuasive attorney who makes his rural background an asset,” says Dewey Cornell, a forensic psychologist and expert in juvenile violence and homicide. “Both Matlock and Cooley have an understated ability to connect with other people.”
Mike Arif describes his fellow defense attorney this way: “Craig is so mellow and centered. There’s a real core to him. He truly is a gentle soul.”
Criminal defense attorney Chris Collins recalls watching a murder case in which Cooley was pitted against prosecutor Warren Von Schuch, who was questioning the victim’s brother. “Warren showed the jury the victim’s bloody shirt, then tossed it onto the clerk’s table, where it landed on top of a Bible,” Collins recalls. Cooley, while cross-examining the witness, slowly walked over to the table and removed the shirt from the Bible. “He knew that two women on the jury were from the Shenandoah Valley, and he ultimately got his client off because jurors saw him as a God-fearing lawyer,” Collins says.
Even prosecutors, his natural enemies, are full of praise. Learned Barry, who has prosecuted homicide cases since 1978, has worked against Cooley numerous times. “In my humble opinion he’s the best criminal defense attorney in the city of Richmond, and maybe the entire state,” Barry says. “There’s a large volume of crime in Richmond, so he gets lots of practice.”
One of the few people who doesn’t seem too impressed with Craig Cooley is Craig Cooley. He deflects all praise with self-effacing humor. He describes, for example, how one Sunday at his church, Lebanon United Methodist, a two-page listing of what constituted “success” was handed out to churchgoers. “I didn’t qualify for anything on the first page,” he says, “but on the second I noticed that success can be defined as Going from failure to failure with enthusiasm. I saw myself fitting in here.” Similarly, his résumé includes the following dry, self-deprecating line: “I have lost to every prosecutor known to exist in central Virginia. This accomplishment was not by design.”
But if you pin him down he’ll say that the “core” people see in him probably comes from growing up in the Shenandoah Valley. “We were taught to recognize our own faults and sins before condemning others,” he says. “We were taught to have a sense of humor and not take ourselves too seriously … [and] we were taught to treat every person with dignity, no matter what their perceived station in life.”
Case in point. Cooley’s father was the principal of the local high school in Harrisonburg in the central Shenandoah Valley, and one Christmas morning Cooley remembers waiting in the family car with his mother and sisters while his father visited a former student in the local jail. “Dad knew it would be a lonely and tough time for that young man to be incarcerated over the holidays,” he says. “All of my career I’ve made it a habit to visit one or more jails on Christmas Day.”
After graduating from the University of Richmond, Cooley taught high school for five years before enrolling in T.C. Williams Law School. During a summer clerkship in Richmond Circuit Court, he learned the ropes of criminal trial work, and, after getting his degree, hung out a shingle and started taking court-appointed cases.
Two years later he got his first capital case, representing Linwood Briley, who, together with his brother James, petrified Richmond in the late 1970s with a string of brutal murders. Both were later executed. Cooley co-represented Briley with Melvin Hughes in three of the four cases against him — one, two and four — but it was in that third case, with a different judge who appointed different counsel, that Briley received the death penalty.
In all, Cooley has represented 61 clients in capital cases and has avoided a verdict of death in all but two of them. He opposes capital punishment for ethical, moral, religious and professional reasons and he doesn’t think it’s a deterrent. “We are well behind the rest of what we consider ‘the civilized world’ in condemning the use of the death penalty,” he says.
Until 1987 Cooley worked with a partner whose practice focused on business and tax work. “It was sometimes awkward,” he recalls. “We’d have a bank president and his wife sitting in the conference room next to a robbery defendant with lots of bling, and I’d be bringing them both coffee. The setup made people uncomfortable.” Since going solo, Cooley’s work has consisted mainly of criminal defense — 75 percent or more by his estimate. His only rule: He won’t take two capital cases at the same time.
In 2003, Judge Jane Roush tapped Cooley for what would turn out to be the most high-profile case of his career — representing Lee Boyd Malvo in the Washington sniper case. For months before his capture, Malvo and the man he called “father,” John Allen Muhammad, terrorized the Washington, D.C., area during a shooting spree in which victims were picked off at random by a gunman hidden in the trunk of a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice.
Cooley first talked it over with his family before accepting the challenge and joining a defense team that consisted of Mike Arif, Mark Petrovich, Thomas Walsh and John Strayer. They set out to tell the story of a Jamaican youth abandoned by his father shortly after birth and then sporadically cared for by his mother. Eventually Malvo met John Allen Muhammad in Antigua, and Muhammad brought him to the United States.
In order to pull the case together, Cooley traveled to Jamaica to persuade key character witnesses to come to the United States to testify on Malvo’s behalf. Despite living in a dangerous gang-ruled area, many were fearful of coming to the States. “They told me that in the United States, they shoot people in the streets,” Cooley recalls. When he tried to convince them otherwise, more than one witness pointed out that Cooley was there because his client had in fact shot people in the streets. Ultimately, Cooley says, “many of those witnesses came because they knew and loved the real Lee.” He adds, “It was crucial to find people who saw how Lee’s mother treated him — moving him from place to place frequently and preventing him from forming relationships,” which, as Cooley stated in his closing argument, made Malvo “ripe for the picking” by someone like Muhammad.
The mental health experts called by the defense, including Dewey Cornell and child soldier expert Neil Boothby, attested to Malvo’s domination by Muhammad. Muhammad, they said, took over all aspects of Malvo’s life, including ridding him of a reluctance to engage in violence. When Malvo was afraid to shoot real people, for example, Muhammad made him play hundreds of hours of firstperson shooter video games to desensitize him.
Once Cooley and the team concluded they could make a case for insanity, they were able to block the prosecution from overwhelming the jury with gore. “Having a legitimate insanity defense allowed us to ‘front load’ our mitigation evidence and tell Lee’s story before the jury could be overwhelmed with back-to-back case-in-chief and victim impact presentations. It allowed us to split those prosecution strengths,” Cooley says.
In the end, the defense’s case was five times as long as the prosecution’s: four weeks versus four days.
But no matter how good a case you put on, any defense attorney sweats the verdict. “Even after all these years, the longest time is the time between when that buzzer rings [indicating that jurors have reached a verdict] and the announcement of the verdict,” Cooley says. And in the sniper case, that unbearable period was drawn out even further. “The judge,” says Cooley, “sent the jurors back to fix part of the verdict, setting a fine — twice! — while we waited. Then it occurred to me that there are no fines in death penalty cases, so that couldn’t have been the verdict.”
Bob Horan, the prosecuting attorney in the case, gives Cooley credit for everything from preparation to intellectual skills to sartorial smarts. “Cooley and his wife went out and bought Malvo sweaters in pastel colors,” Horan says, “so he looked like an absolute preppy. He’s young-looking anyhow, and in those sweaters he looked about 15.”
Deputy attorney Ray Morrogh, meanwhile, admired the way Cooley painted pictures with words. “During the closing argument,” he remembers, “[Cooley] compared the trial to a stoning while holding a large rock in his hand. Cooley told the jury that if they sentenced Malvo to death, they would have the grit of those stoning rocks on their hands forever.”
Although the verdict saved Malvo’s life, Cooley maintained perspective. “It would have been unfair to the families who had lost so much to be joyous,” he says.
Cooley’s home is on a three-acre spread in the Glen Allen section of the Richmond suburbs, where three cats, a basset hound, a sheltie mix and a rabbit play. There are nearby train tracks, and trains occasionally rumble by near Cooley’s backyard. Some might find it annoying, but it’s actually the reason Cooley bought the place; his two sons, Jeremy and Charles, loved trains when they were little.
Jeremy is now 26 and married, while Charles, 21, still lives at home and works as a mechanic at a Nissan dealership, where, says Cooley, “he makes more money than I do.”
The oldest child is Temple, 28, whose work in the Peace Corps ultimately helped some Jamaican witnesses in the Malvo case acclimate to life in the United States. They had trouble with simple things — like finding their way from the hotel lobby to their rooms. Others froze when confronted with the options at an American grocery store or restaurant. “Temple helped us recognize such problems and direct them through,” Cooley recalls.
The most important member of Cooley’s support team is his wife of 33 years, Sarah. “She gives me a safe haven to come home to,” he says.
Once a member of the University of Richmond’s tennis team, Cooley has no time for racquet sports these days, and even less for recreational reading. Relaxation takes place at his weekend home on the North Fork of the Shenandoah River in Strasburg.
With a 59th birthday under his belt, Cooley would like to find a way to slow down, but he’s still on court-appointed lists, still taking difficult clients other attorneys shun. Last year, he won acquittal for John Ames, a lawyer and gentleman farmer charged with murdering his 74-year-old neighbor over a fence dispute.
His reputation extends beyond his home state. In 2004, the American Bar Association awarded him its 19th annual Livingston Hall Juvenile Justice Award. Wally Mlyniec, co-chair of the ABA Juvenile Justice Center, says, “Mr. Cooley has an unwavering dedication to protecting and defending children. He’s an exceptional lawyer, whose legal skills border on legendary.”
Cooley’s own assessment has a bit more of the Shenandoah Valley in it. “If you stab your previous attorney,” he says, “I’m your go-to guy.”