LITTLE ROCK -- After about 6½ hours of deliberation, a jury of seven men and five women returned verdicts of guilty on all counts in the trial of two men accused of conspiring to kill a federal witness in 2016 in Malvern.
Donald Smith, 37, of Malvern and Samuel Sherman, 38, of Batesville stood trial on several charges in the 2016 shooting death of 44-year-old Suzen Cooper.
A 2019 indictment charged the men with conspiracy to cause witness tampering resulting in death. In addition, the indictment charged Smith with witness tampering resulting in death, conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, and of aiding and abetting the use, carry and discharge of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime.
When the verdicts were announced just after 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, several members of Cooper's family who were in attendance burst into tears and one left the courtroom for several minutes before returning. Smith and Sherman sat impassively with their hands folded in front of them as the verdicts were read, neither man displaying any reaction.
In summing up the government's case during closing statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anne Gardner outlined a flurry of phone calls and texts between Racheal Cooper, Suzen Cooper's former sister-in-law; Smith; Sherman; and others in the overnight hours of Sept. 26 and 27, 2016, the night Suzen Cooper was shot to death and buried in a field along Grigsby Ford Road just outside of Malvern. She said Smith had been texting on his phone up until the moment he pulled out a .22-caliber pistol and shot Suzen Cooper four times in the back and once in the head, killing her.
After Suzen Cooper was dead, Gardner said, Smith enlisted the help of Jimmy Porter, who she said purchased methamphetamine from Smith and who owned the property where her body was found buried two years later. She said Porter was the one who eventually led police to the grave site.
Gardner said Racheal Cooper, Smith and Sherman were involved in a drug distribution conspiracy and that "Smith killed Cooper to preserve that conspiracy."
She said Racheal Cooper contacted her former sister-in-law to set up a drug deal as a ruse to convince the woman to go with her that night, and that she drove Suzen Cooper to the Grigsby Ford Road location pre-arranged by herself and Smith.
Annie Depper, co-counsel with Blake Hendrix for Smith's defense, said the government's case was based on unreliable evidence.
"There is no physical evidence connecting Donald to these crimes," Depper said.
Depper said the four primary witnesses, Racheal Cooper, Jimmy Porter, Parris Davis and Jason Frazier, all had reason to lie.
Racheal Cooper, she said, was originally charged with capital murder in Hot Spring County in the case and later pleaded down to a charge of hindering apprehension, for which she served five years of a 25-year sentence.
"What does she do to get out of that?" Depper asked. "She pins it on somebody else."
She said Porter waited two years before he led police to the location of Suzen Cooper's body.
Of Davis, Smith's ex-girlfriend who testified against him, Depper said her motivation was money and revenge, and of Frazier, she said he was only trolling for any information that might help him get out of prison or land a lighter sentence.
George Morledge IV, who shared defense duties for Sherman with Jeff Rosenzweig, said the government had failed to connect Sherman to the murder.
He said the government's exhibits alleging that Smith drove to Batesville the day before the murder and that Sherman drove to Malvern the day of the murder were "speculative at best."
After the verdict, Rosenzweig said he and Morledge plan to appeal Sherman's conviction on a couple of issues.
Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. told Smith and Sherman that he will set a sentencing hearing at a later date. Although the crime of witness tampering resulting in death is a capital crime, the U.S. attorney's office filed a motion earlier this year to take the death penalty off the table, a decision Ross said was made in Washington, D.C.
The maximum sentence each man may receive is life in prison.