By Neal Putman
A jury convicted a man of voluntary manslaughter in the death of his friend, a gay man, who gave a dying statement that was recorded by a police officer’s body camera as he talked with officers in North Park.
Spencer Thompson, 38, mortally wounded from a stabbing on May 29, 2017, told a police officer that his friend, Brandon Kyle Cooper, 37, was the person who stabbed him on University Avenue in North Park. Thompson’s words were recorded as he sat up next to Glenn’s Market before an ambulance arrived.
That dying declaration was played to the six-man, six-woman jury who heard Cooper’s trial that started Aug. 16. They found Cooper not guilty of second-degree murder and convicted him of voluntary manslaughter on Aug. 29 after deliberating 13.5 hours over three days.
Deputy District Attorney Oscar Hagstrom said Cooper faces a sentence of 11 years in prison for manslaughter plus one year for using a knife in the crime. He said Cooper could also receive two consecutive years for having prior convictions for assault with a deadly weapon and grand theft.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Charles Rogers set sentencing for Oct. 18. Cooper remains in jail on $2 million bail.
His attorney, Tressa Huber, asked jurors to acquit Cooper. In several interviews with police, which were played to the jury, Cooper denied stabbing Thompson. Cooper said when he left Thompson on University Avenue, he was fine.
Surveillance video camera from area businesses showed the two together in North Park and later Cooper was shown walking away by himself. Thompson was not seen with anyone else. Two kitchen knives were found on Cooper and a crime lab witness said one knife had the victim’s DNA on it.
Hagstrom asked the jury to convict Cooper of second-degree murder. On Sept. 7, the prosecutor said he disagreed with the verdict, but “I respect their decision.”
Officer Nicholas Dabbaghian testified he discovered Thompson sitting up against a wall in the 2800 block of University Avenue, and he was moaning in pain from a stab wound to the abdomen. His body camera recorded everything Thompson said, although he was in a lot of pain. He said he and Cooper were “hanging out, drinking” that night before he was stabbed around 9:30 p.m.
Dabbaghian went with Thompson in the ambulance to Mercy Hospital. Thompson had surgery to close the wound, but he died afterwards from cardiac arrest, according to deputy medical examiner Othon Mena. The pathologist testified the stab wound itself was 1.5 inches long, but it cut his liver almost in half. A kidney vein and two arteries were also cut.
Cooper had been homeless, and Thompson let Cooper stay at his apartment in North Park temporarily. They had been friends since high school. Thompson also had two other roommates and Cooper said he was not comfortable staying there.
Cooper was arrested two days later at Seaport Village and tapes of his conversations with police officers were played to the jury. Officers did not tell Cooper initially that Thompson had died. Cooper told officers he became angry with Thompson after staying with him and decided he would go sleep in a park.
“He was hittin’ on me …We’re just friends; that’s all we’re going to be,” said Cooper, adding he was never Spencer’s partner. “He was tryin’ to provoke me. He was tryin’ to evoke some reaction,” said Cooper.
Cooper said he left his clothes at Thompson’s apartment and he and Thompson walked down University Avenue together.
Cooper told officers he said this to Thompson, “I don’t want to walk with you, Spencer. Leave me the fuck alone.” Cooper said they parted company at the KFC.
Cooper became curious as to why officers contacted him, saying he had not heard from Thompson since. An officer told Cooper, “he says you attacked him.” Cooper denied attacking Thompson, saying “maybe he’s trying to protect someone.”
“If he’s not doing well, I’m sorry to hear that,” said Cooper.
“Spencer died,” said an officer.
“No way, no way,” said Cooper on tape. “No, he didn’t die. We didn’t have an altercation.”
Several days after his arrest, officers contacted Cooper in jail and played the dying declaration of Thompson to him at a police station. Cooper wept upon seeing it, but still insisted he did not attack his friend.
—Neal Putnam is a local freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.