Codey Miller waits for his hearing in Criminal Court on Monday (Becky Campbell/Johnson City Press)
Four years after his mother’s death and his arrest for her murder, Codey Miller walked out of a Washington County courtroom a free man Monday.
All charges against Miller — felony murder, first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse — were dismissed by Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks. Miller had been free on $100,000 bond since December 2011 and was accused of killing his mother, 36-year-old Sherry Cooper in May 2009. But as the case progressed through the system, Brooks said he became less and less confident about being able to obtain a conviction.
“Mr. Miller, I don’t know what involvement you had in this case, if any, and I don’t guess we’ll ever know. Only you will. You’re free to go,” Judge Robert Cupp told Miller, who stood before him with his attorney, Public Defender Jeff Kelly.
After the hearing, Brooks further explained why he chose to dismiss the charges.
“In criminal law we deal with a burden for the state beyond reasonable doubt. They taught us in law school that it’s better for 10 guilty people to go free than one innocent person to suffer. That’s what we see at play here,” Brooks said after the hearing. “That’s part of our American system of justice — that we try to do everything we can do to be sure people who are incarcerated are guilty of those offenses.
“An ethical prosecutor has to follow that. I’m not going to stand in front of a jury and say, ‘convict him,’ if I’ve got my own reasonable doubt. That’s not fair to anybody.”
After the hearing, Miller walked up to Brooks outside the courtroom, shook the prosecutor’s hand and said, “Thank you.” Brooks told Miller to stay out of trouble.
Miller’s co-defendant in the case, Christopher Johnson, was also charged with the same offenses. He pleaded guilty last year to tampering with evidence and abuse of a corpse and received an eight-year probation term. Since then, Johnson has absconded from probation and now faces a charge that stems back to 2008.
The new charge, and the circumstances around it, also played a role in Brooks’ decision to dismiss Miller’s charges.
The allegations from Shelby County involved a female who was living with him, sleeping on a blowup mattress in the living room who woke up and her hands were taped up and tied with rope, Brooks said.
That incident occurred in July 2008, but Shelby County didn’t file a warrant until July 2009, which was after Cooper’s death. Brooks said investigators checked Johnson’s criminal history when he was arrested on the murder charge, but no one thought to check it again as the case progressed through court.
Miller, now 21, was just 17 years old when his mother’s body was found in a large trash can outside her apartment May 9, 2009. Cooper, 36, had been strangled to death and police believed someone had sex with her corpse based on evidence recovered from inside her apartment. Johnson City police investigators focused on Miller and Johnson. Both were ultimately charged with murder, but Miller was the person investigators said actually killed Cooper and had sex with her corpse.
Miller confessed to the crime after hours of interrogation, but that confession was ultimately thrown out because Cupp said police pressed Miller too hard during questioning.
Without the confession, Brooks said all he had was Johnson’s testimony and a belt found in Miller’s room that had DNA from Cooper. He said there was no way to prove who put the belt in Miller’s room and Johnson’s new charge made him a terrible witness.
In his plea last year, Johnson gave a vivid account of what he said happened the night Cooper died. Johnson said Cooper and Miller were arguing so he went to smoke a cigarette outside. He said he heard lots of yelling and suddenly things got quiet inside.
In that hearing, Johnson said the argument between Cooper and Miller involved her telling him to mind his own business and giving her space and Miller fussing because he said Cooper wouldn’t buy him school clothes.
Miller went to his bedroom, Johnson said, and returned with a belt.
“He had the belt in his right hand. He grabbed her by the collar and he tried to put the belt around her neck. That’s when she grabbed the belt and took it from him and threw it across the room,” Johnson said.
“This was a normal routine,” for the mother and son, he said. “I was maybe out there 15, 20 minutes waiting for them to finish arguing. This was a routine thing. It finally calmed down, there was no more arguing going on. That’s when I came back into the house. Ms. Cooper was laying up on the couch. She was sitting up with her head leaned to the side. I assumed she was asleep. I tried to shake her to wake her up,” he said.
The second time he shook Cooper with no response, he went into Miller’s room to see what had happened.
“He was sitting at the edge of his bed with his hands crossed rocking back and forth.”
Miller didn’t answer when Johnson asked him what was wrong with Cooper. When Johnson returned to the living room, he realized Cooper was not breathing.
“That’s when I came to the conclusion, I realized she was dead,” he said.
And that’s when panic set in as well, Johnson said. He suggested to Miller that he needed to get rid of Cooper’s body until he could figure out what to do next.
“I stressed to him, ‘you need to figure out what to do with the body until you come up with something to do,’ ” Johnson said.
Part of Johnson’s panic came from the mixed-race relationship he had with Cooper and what the perception of police might be.
“I was afraid for myself,” Johnson said. “It’s the thing of being a black guy talking to a Caucasian woman.”
Johnson said he retrieved the trash can, but Miller did all the work to get the body into it.
“He tried to tilt it up. He couldn’t tilt it. That’s when he proceeded to go over there and help pull the garbage can up because it was too heavy for him. He couldn’t get it out the door so then he rolled it out the back door and to the side of the house,” Johnson said last year when he pleaded to the lesser charges.
On Monday, Brooks said Johnson has absconded from his probation. If he’s arrested, Johnson will likely be ordered to serve his eight-year sentence in Washington County.
Brooks said he regrets not being able to get justice for Cooper.
“If you do this business long enough, there’s going to be a homicide victim that doesn’t get justice. It’s something I regret,” he said.
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