Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich is crediting fate for keeping a convicted rapist behind bars after the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles agreed to release him from a life sentence based on a pair of unauthenticated, handwritten letters.
On Tuesday, the Parole Board was considering the early release of David Cooley, who was convicted in Mobile County of robbery, kidnapping and rape in 1997. He was only 16 years old when he and three accomplices abducted two women at gunpoint near Airport Boulevard.“They forced them into their car, drove them around town, gang-raped these two young women, and then robbed them before discarding them out of their car,” Rich said. “In December of 1997, Cooley was sentenced to two life sentences and has been in prison for 20 years now.”
When a defendant is considered for parole, the District Attorney in the area where they were convicted is notified and can travel to Montgomery to present arguments against an earlier release — something Rich vowed to “do a better job of” when she took office in 2011.
With limited funding, Rich says the office can’t afford to hire a full-time staff member to attend parole hearings in Montgomery for every defendant from Mobile County. Instead, she requires each of her existing staff members to make the trip at least three times each year.
On the day of Cooley’s hearing, it just happened to be Rich’s turn. When she arrived at Cooley’s parole hearing, she learned his attorney had submitted two letters for the board’s consideration, purportedly from the two women Cooley was convicted of raping in 1997.
“The attorney said the family had gotten these letters from the victims in the case, and they were just copies of handwritten letters,” Rich said. “To properly authenticate a document. you have to sign it in an affidavit form and in the presence of a notary. None of that was done, and the extent of letters was basically, “We forgive you. We’re ok with you getting parole.”
Unconvinced by a pair of letters that “could have been written by anyone,” Rich said she was “extremely upset” to see the board grant Cooley’s parole Tuesday, which would’ve seen him released from prison after 20 years of his life sentence and returning to the Mobile area.
However, after the hearing, Rich received a call on her cellphone. It was one of Cooley’s victims, whom she’d attempted to contact before the hearing. When Rich asked about the letter supporting Cooley’s early release, she wasn’t surprised by the woman’s answer.
“She said, ‘No ma’am, I didn’t write that letter. I Haven’t written anything like that,’” Rich added.With new information, Rich says she went back in front of the Parole Board to make them aware of the conversation she’d had with the victim. Ultimately, the board backtracked and decided not to grant Cooley’s parole Tuesday, though he will have a second hearing sometime soon.
“I just think it’s absolutely ludicrous the parole board would accept an unauthenticated, handwritten document and base their decision on that,” Rich said. “What would have happened if I hadn’t been there? Even assuming those letters were genuine, I still have to protect the citizens of Mobile County, and we don’t think this man needs to be released.”
The Board of Pardons and Paroles has yet to set a date for Cooley’s second hearing, but whenever it is, Rich told Lagniappe she would be making the trip again.