After spending 27 years behind bars for a murder he says he did not commit, Cooper was released in January 2020, just before the coronavirus began wreaking havoc across America. The pandemic has not been easy for the world, but he remains unfazed.
“I’ve been incarcerated a long time. This is nothing,” the soft-spoken Cooper said in a video interview from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina, which he shares with his wife, Sandy, and their 10-year-old daughter, Layla.
He spends his days cooking, which he did in prison — “Besides God, that was one of the therapeutic things that kept me strong” — and other stay-at-home-dad tasks like helping Layla with her schoolwork.
But his freedom isn’t always easy.
Cooper, 53, struggles with technology (Sandy set up our Zoom meeting) and he suffers from claustrophobia, which he said he developed on Rikers Island. He cannot get into elevators, but Layla always takes the stairs with him.
Crossing the street is hard because cars and speed upset him. He thinks often about the men he knows still behind bars, and he wakes up in the middle of the night from dreams of being back himself.
Those memories and sensations, he said, happen during the day, too. Sandy, whom he married in May 2019, said he internalizes a lot and can struggle communicating with her.
Sandy and Cooper have known one another since they were kids growing up in Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Houses, and dated when they were young.
They wrote one another letters off-and-on after he went to prison in the 1990s, and during our interview they brought out a few mementos from the old days.
“No matter time or distance, you’ll always have a place in my heart,” Sandy wrote in one card from 1997. Cooper held up an illustrated handkerchief drawn by an inmate that cost him a pack of Newports.
Sandy and God, Cooper said, gave him the strength he needed to survive prison.
‘I can’t do nothing about it but stay strong’
On November 25, 1992, Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) token booth clerk Andres Barretto was shot and killed during a robbery in a Brooklyn subway station.
Cooper said he didn’t do it, but three eyewitnesses said they saw Cooper at the scene, including Rico Sanchez, a parolee, and two MTA token clerks, Elaine Terry and Russell Bratton.
Cooper, then 26 years old, was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison on November 23, 1993.
He spent the next 27 years holding firm to his belief in his innocence and in God. Immanuel, as referred to in the Bible, means “God is with us”, and one does not come to know God in the crucible of prison without believing, bone-deep.
He said he kept telling himself, “This is God’s plan. I can’t do nothing about it but stay strong.”
His strength was tested by his mother’s death, two unsuccessful parole board appearances, appeals that were denied and unanswered letters to lawyers pleading for help.
Finally, attorney Thomas Hoffman agreed to look at his case. Hoffman admits it took a year or two for him to do so after receiving one of Cooper’s letters.
Collins knew Cooper from Green Haven Correctional Facility, where Collins had served time for a 34-years-to-life sentence for a 1994 murder.
He decided to help Cooper and joined Hoffman’s efforts, filing FOIL (freedom of information law) requests in the state of New York and helping prepare the 440 motion, which seeks to vacate a previous judgment, that led to Cooper’s release.
“[Jabbar] was part of God’s plan. When he came along, it was breathtaking,” Cooper said. “This was God giving me my second chance.”
Investigating the investigation
Hoffman and Collins’ investigation unearthed new evidence about the original eyewitnesses that was not disclosed at trial.
In a sworn affidavit, Rico Sanchez said detectives took him into custody shortly after the subway murder and threatened to charge him with “with a more serious violent crime” if he did not identify Cooper as the main suspect.
In December 1992, while he was on parole, Sanchez had been involved in a separate incident with another man, and police told him they would charge him in that incident if he did not comply, he said in a January 2018 affidavit.
Sanchez said in the affidavit that he was afraid and followed the detectives’ instructions.
After implicating Cooper, Sanchez said he never faced a judge in connection to the 1992 incident, according to his affidavit.
Cooper’s lawyers also learned that Bratton, one of the MTA clerk witnesses, was himself a suspect in the Barretto murder, which was not previously disclosed by the prosecution.
“The suppressed evidence,” Cooper’s 440 motion states, “also establishes the prosecution deceived the defense and jury with evidence and arguments it knew, or at the very least should have known, were false or misleading.”
On January 9, 2020, the court vacated Cooper’s murder conviction and ordered him released from custody.
He moved to Raleigh, North Carolina
When Cooper was released, it was as unexpected as it was overwhelming.
After breathing fresh, free air for the first time in 27 years, Cooper and Sandy visited their old neighborhood and spent time with his grandkids.
The good times were short-lived.
The lights and roar of an ambulance unnerved Cooper, he said. Collins explained that in prison, “The only time you see motion, it’s violence.”
A day later, Cooper and Sandy left Brooklyn for Raleigh.
The resurrection business
Hoffman said cases like Cooper’s are their own kind of homicide.
“These are not wrongful convictions. These are murders. There is no other word for that,” Hoffman said. “Murders of not only the person, but the whole family.”
This is why Hoffman refers to his exoneration work as “the resurrection business.”
“We bring people back to life,” he said.
Hoffman’s mother, brother and sister survived the Holocaust in Budapest, Hungary, where he was born at the tail-end of World War Two.
“Tom has a heart for these types of cases of cases,” Collins said. “He knows what it’s like to be persecuted.”
A man’s fate lingers
In March 2020, the Kings County District Attorney’s office in Brooklyn said it would retry Cooper.
“They gonna have enough time to set me up again,” Cooper remembered thinking at the time.
Collins, the paralegal, was as shocked as he was appalled.
“Me and Tom were infuriated that they were causing Emmanuel this additional suffering,” Collins said. “That did catch us off-guard, but we knew that dismissal was a forgone conclusion.”
After the retrial went to discovery, the new prosecutor provided Cooper’s legal team with two police reports from 1992 they hadn’t seen before.
The reports said two eyewitnesses, David Lucas and Thomas Volino, had both identified the shooter as someone they recognized from the neighborhood — but it wasn’t Cooper.
Lucas identified the man as “Chris,” and although Volino did not know his name, he told police he could identify him.
Having moved to Raleigh, Sandy would drive her husband 16 hours round-trip from North Carolina to Brooklyn for his court appearances.
“When you love someone, you will go to the end of the world for them,” she said.
Sandy, like Cooper and Collins, kept the faith as she waited.
“I just held on. When he got hit the second time, I said to myself, ‘Sandy, what are you doing?’ And I would answer, ‘I love him.’ ”
Cooper’s fate lingered for seven months as the pandemic ravaged the country.
On November 9, 2020, the district attorney’s office dropped its case against Cooper after reinvestigating it.
In his dismissal motion, Assistant District Attorney Howard Jackson noted that Bratton could no longer be sure as to how he recognized Cooper, who Bratton said was a regular passenger at the subway station. Sanchez had by then recanted his original testimony.
“We no longer have the required evidence to prove Mr. Cooper’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Jackson said in court.
In January 2021, he filed a state lawsuit in the New York Court of Claims under the Unjust Conviction Act that seeks $66 million in damages. His legal team is currently drafting a federal lawsuit to be filed in federal court.
Despite the continued chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic and despite decades of injustice and pain, Cooper remains faithful in his new life.
“There’s a saying a lot of us say: ‘Our worst days on the street is better than the good days in jail.’ That’s the truth,” he said.
“I raise my hands every day that my life will get greater.”