Bryan Cooke will spend the rest of his life behind bars after a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder in the stabbing deaths of his in-law, Gary and Gail Dodson, and sentenced him to life without chance of parole.
“He now sits before you a convicted killer,” District Attorney General Lisa Zavogiannis told the six-man, six-woman jury shortly after they returned with guilty verdicts on all seven counts, ranging from premeditated murder to theft. “You have spoken with your verdict.”
The verdict capped an emotional, two-day trial that included heart-felt statements from two family members before sentencing.
"It's hard to express how emotionally exhausting, how physically and mentally exhausting, this has been," said Zavogiannis after the trial was complete. "These are real people, real lives, right here in our community."
Prosecutors proved Cooke broke into the Dodson’s home in the Fairview community on the night of June 28, 2015 by jimmying their door using a gift card. He then stabbed Mr. Dodson in the heart as he lie sleeping on the couch, nearly running through his body with the 8-inch blade he had just stolen from Walmart.
Cooke then proceeded to his mother-in-law’s bedroom where he stabbed her while she slept on her bed, also nearly running through her body on the first blow. After killing the couple, he took their money and keys to their vehicle and fled to Florida where he was later arrested in a motel room in Jacksonville.
The defense had hoped for a conviction on lesser charges, claiming Cooke’s memory had recently returned and he recalled the incident. During his time on the stand, Cooke, trembling uncontrollably, told jurors he went to his in-law’s home to apologize for his most recent drug disappearance where he had run off to Florida.
Cooke claimed his father-in-law became irate and attacked him, prompting him to pick up a knife off the table and stab him. He then claimed to have stabbed his mother-in-law when she intervened.
The defense also maintained Cooke was stoned at the time and could not have formed intent to kill in his condition. Prosecutors pointed out Cooke’s recollection was not only “convenient” but it also was contrary to hard evidence at the scene.
Jurors took most of the day Wednesday to return with a verdict after hearing two days of testimony. They were sent back into deliberation by Circuit Court Judge Bart Stanley to decide Cooke’s punishment – life with chance of parole, or life without chance of parole. In the case of life with chance of parole, the 44-year-old defendant would have become eligible for early release after serving 51 years. Life without chance of parole is literal.
“This was a very cruel killing,” said Zavogiannis, pointing to one of the enhancing factors jurors would need to bring the top punishment. “There is no reasonable explanation for what he did. We must ensure he is never released from prison.”
Defense attorney Bud Sharpe argued his client has no past history of violence and was under the influence of drugs when he killed the Dodsons.
“He was not of a sound mind when this happened,” Sharpe maintained.
To bolster their case for life without chance of parole, prosecutors brought Cooke’s ex-wife and daughter to the victims, Kelly Dodson, to the stand. She told jurors of the horrors of life after finding her parents murdered in their home.
“When we can sleep at night, there are nightmares … lots of nightmares,” the sobbed, noting she carries a feeling of guilt because she stayed with Cooke after her family had told her to leave him due to his drug addiction. “I have a feeling of guilt. I was trying to make our marriage work because I thought that was the right thing to do.”
For the defense, Michelle Frizzell, Cooke’s aunt, brought the court gallery to tears as she recalled the good memories she had of the victims and their family.
“This is not my nephew,” she said as she pointed to the defense table, her passionate testimony even moving some jurors to tears. “It’s just so hard for me to understand.”