A former University Police officer could face up to 15 years in prison after he was convicted Wednesday of one count of felony child abuse in a Maryland court.
Former UPD special officer Vernon Cooper faced two additional counts of abuse, but the jury could not reach a verdict on them and was declared deadlocked.
Cooper and his wife, Terry, both were charged with three counts of child abuse of Terry’s two young cousins, 11-year-old India Clegg and 7-year-old Brianna Clegg.
The girls testified this week that they were routinely handcuffed to a metal pole in the basement of the Coopers’ Seat Pleasant, Md., home. They also told the jury they were beaten and deprived of food, said Tonia Belton-Gofreed, assistant state’s attorney for Prince George’s County.
The sisters were placed in the Coopers’ care by D.C. social workers five years ago because their mother was addicted to crack cocaine.
Terry Cooper, 34, was convicted Friday of all three counts of felony child abuse.
“I was obviously disappointed (with Terry Cooper’s conviction) because I’m defense counsel in the case, but not particularly surprised by the verdict,” said Harry Trainor Jr., Terry Cooper’s attorney. “It’s a real tragedy all the way around.”
“We are very pleased with the verdict,” said Paula Burr, spokesperson for the Maryland state’s attorney’s office. “It just tears you apart knowing that those two beautiful little girls received such deplorable treatment, and we’re going to push for the maximum sentence for both Mr. Cooper and Mrs. Cooper.”
Belton-Gofreed said she would ask for prison time for Vernon Cooper, although probation is possible. Judge Graydon McKee III scheduled an Oct. 28 sentencing hearing for both.
Vernon Cooper’s attorney was not available for comment Wednesday.
The children allegedly were abused from July 1996 to September 1997. Details of the abuse were brought to the attention of police early on the morning of Sept. 1, 1997 when India Clegg walked into a 7-Eleven convenience store near the Coopers’ home with a handcuff still around one ankle. When the girl attempted to steal food from the store, a clerk notified police.
Prince George’s County police found scars and bruises on the girl’s wrists and ankles, prompting the police to investigate their abuse.
Vernon Cooper was convicted on one count of felony child abuse for abusing 11-year-old India from July 1996 to August 1997.
The jury hung on the other two counts, which detailed the events of Sept. 1, 1997.
“The children couldn’t say he cuffed them that night or directed anyone to cuff them that night,” Belton-Gofreed said. “The whole theory was he was an aider and abettor in the acts against these kids – the lack of feeding and handcuffing.”
The Coopers have six children of their own. The couple also took in a third Clegg sister, but no evidence was found that she was mistreated. The children have been placed under the care of their maternal grandmother.
India and Brianna testified that Terry Cooper made them sleep on the dirt floor in the dank basement, with sheets but no mattresses, while the other children in the house shared beds and slept in bedrooms, Belton-Gofreed said.
India Clegg also testified before the Prince George’s County Circuit Court that the girls were beaten with a belt when they failed to complete their homework or to clean the bathroom to Terry Cooper’s satisfaction, Belton-Gofreed said.
Vernon Cooper was a special police officer with the University from 1988 until he was dismissed Sept. 12, 1997, UPD Director Dolores Stafford said. University handcuffs that were issued to Cooper allegedly were used on the girls.
-Matt Berger contributed to this report.