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State v. Cooper

Decided: May 27, 1986.


On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Essex County.

Morton I. Greenberg, J. H. Coleman and Long. The opinion of the court was delivered by Long, J.A.D.


On these appeals, which have been consolidated for the purpose of this opinion, Willie Lee Lawson and Robert Cooper challenge their convictions for a series of crimes arising out of the robbery of the Howard Savings & Loan in Newark on November 28, 1980. During the course of the robbery Lawson shot and killed John Gottfried, a member of the Newark Police Department who was a customer at the bank.

The case arose on December 11, 1980 when the Essex County Grand Jury handed down a sixteen count indictment against Lawson and Cooper together with Daryl Benton, Alvin Conerly and Gina Woods. Lawson was named in the following counts of the indictment:

Count 1: Conspiracy to commit the November 28, 1980 robbery of the Howard Savings & Loan (N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2 and 2C:15-1).

Count 2: Robbery of the bank on November 28, 1980 (N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1).

Count 3: The murder of Officer Gottfried (N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3).

Count 4: Aggravated assault on Officer Gottfried (N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1).

Count 5: Robbery of Officer Gottfried (N.J.S.A. 2C:15-1).

Count 6: Receipt of stolen property (the get away car) (N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7).

Count 7: Unlawful possession of weapons used in the robbery (N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a)).

Count 8: Unlawful possession of handguns without a license (N.J.S.A. 39-5(b)).

Count 9: Unlawful possession of defaced firearms on December 6, 1980. (N.J.S.A. 2C:39-9(e)).

Count 10: Unlawful possession of automatic handguns without a permit on December 6, 1980 (N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b)).

Count 11: Unlawful possession of certain guns with intent to use them against others on December 6, 1980 (N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4(a)).

Cooper was named in the following counts which arose out of police activity following the initial crimes:

Count 13: Hindering apprehension and prosecution of another by concealing evidence (N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(c)).

Count 14: Theft by receipt of stolen property, namely 2 handguns (N.J.S.A. 2C:20-7).

Count 15: Unlawful possession of defaced weapons (N.J.S.A. 2C:39-9(e)).

Count 16: Possession of 3 revolvers (N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b)).

In a separate indictment (1657-80) Cooper was also charged, in connection with the events of November 28, 1980, with the murder of Gottfried (Count 1), possession of a handgun with intent to use it against Gottfried (Count 2), conspiracy to commit robbery (Count 3) and robbery (Count 4). Both Lawson and Cooper entered pleas of not guilty.

On August 21, 1981 Lawson and Cooper, along with 16 others, were named by the Grand Jury for the United States District Court, District of New Jersey in a 19 count indictment which charged the existence of a criminal conspiracy to commit and the commission of various robberies in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1961 et seq. (RICO) and with bank robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2113. Both Lawson and Cooper were found guilty of the federal charges on December 8, 1981.

They were then tried together in the Superior Court, Law Division, Essex County before Judge Martino and a jury. Prior to the trial, Lawson moved to suppress his statements to the police based upon an alleged violation of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966) and to suppress other evidence seized as a result what he characterized as illegal police activity. These motions were denied as were motions by Cooper and Lawson to dismiss the indictments on double jeopardy grounds. A nine day trial, at which neither Lawson nor Cooper testified or presented a defense, ensued.

These facts were established at trial: The New World of Islaam is a black separatist para-military religious organization with branches in New Jersey, New York, Florida and South Carolina. The organization, whose primary occupation appears to be bank robbery, is structured along military lines with soldiers and officers as well as ministers who oversee the "religious" activities of the group. Cooper is a "minister" of the Newark branch of the New World and one of the organization's

highest ranking officers. Lawson is a "field agent" whose primary responsibility is fund raising for the organization by means of bank robbery. Lawson was supervised by Daryl Benton, a "captain" in the New World who was indicted by the Essex County Grand Jury but testified for the State pursuant to a plea bargain.

On November 28, 1980 Cooper ordered Benton to rob the Howard Savings Bank in Newark along with Lawson and Derrick Edmundson, who was a minor and another soldier in the cause. These four met at the apartment of Alvin Conerly, an "acting minister," to discuss the plans for the robbery: Cooper told the others how the job was to be done and what their roles would be; he also indicated that it would be an easy job since the New Brunswick branch of the New World had successfully robbed the same bank the month before.

On the night before the planned date of the robbery the group met again at Conerly's apartment and Cooper delivered guns to the participants. He also made certain they had extra clothes to change into, fingernail polish which they put on their fingertips to prevent leaving identifiable fingerprints and stocking masks to obscure their features. Cooper told Conerly to wait at the prearranged point to pick up the money and weapons following the robbery. On Wednesday, November 26, the group set off to rob the bank but decided "it didn't look right" and the operation was postponed.

On Friday, November 28, the participants met again at which time Cooper gave them guns and a plastic bag in which to put the money. When they drove to the bank Lawson asked Benton if he should "go in and get the drop on the guard" to which Benton replied it was up to Lawson to decide. While Benton finished parking the car, Lawson and Edmundson entered the bank. Lawson, who was laughing and smiling, waved a gun at the guard and ordered everyone to lie down on the floor while Edmundson jumped over the counter to collect the money. One of the customers in the bank was an off-duty

police officer, John Gottfried, who was wearing his uniform at the time. Lawson then went over to Gottfried, who was lying on the floor with the other customers, and emptied his gun into the officer. Lawson continued to fire the gun after it was empty, and then kicked the body and cursed at it. Benton arrived at the scene at this point and saw Lawson shooting. When the gun was empty Lawson reached down and took Gottfried's gun and fired at least three more shots. At some point Gottfried managed to fire one shot at Lawson which struck him in the leg. The three robbers then fled the scene. The entire holdup was filmed by the bank's security video equipment. The robbers dropped off the money and guns with Conerly as arranged and abandoned the car (which had been stolen). Gottfried died from the gunshot wounds.

Benton was eventually apprehended by the F.B.I. and local police in Jacksonville, Florida together with Conerly. Cooper was arrested when the police, who had gone to a Newark address in search of Edmundson, observed Cooper come out of a fifth floor apartment and place a plastic bag on the stairs to the sixth floor and return to the apartment, all apparently without noticing the police on the stairs below. The police, after checking the bag, discovered it contained three handguns later identified as taken from guards in other robberies, and arrested Cooper.

After the robbery, Edmundson, who was then fifteen, was reported to the police as a delinquent. When the police checked with his mother, she informed them that he had been missing for several days. The police also received a tip that Edmundson was a member of the New World and could be found at Conerly's apartment, 806 South 13th Street, Newark. The investigating officers knew that an unidentified juvenile had been involved in the robbery on November 28. Based on this information in the early morning of December 6, eight ...

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