(WBIR - Knoxville) After almost six years of searching for any justice in the 2008 shooting death of 72-year-old Nola Atkins, Saturday morning the victim's family celebrated what they consider a legal victory as a jury convicted Frank Gary Cooper of criminally negligent homicide.
The two convictions for Cooper's role in the crime carry a combined maximum sentence of six years in prison.
The jury resumed work early Saturday morning after deliberating until 10:00 p.m. on Friday night. Ultimately, the jurors convicted Cooper of facilitation of aggravated burglary on Friday and then criminally negligent homicide on Saturday. Cooper's sentencing is scheduled for March 7, 2014.
Cooper's attorneys argued last summer that he had the mental competency of a 12-year-old, but a judge ruled that he can stand trial for the crime. During this week's trial, Cooper's attorney claimed his client was merely a lookout for other suspects and did not participate in the slaying. Ultimately, the jury determined Cooper should be held responsible for the death of Atkins.
Investigators say they believe Cooper was part of a larger group that may include two or three other men. Investigators say the crime took place because the men mistakenly believed Atkins recently won a million dollar jackpot. As of now the investigators indicate there is not enough evidence to convict the other suspects in the case.
The criminally negligent homicide conviction is much less severe than the charge of felony murder Cooper potentially faced.
"Felony murder carries a possible sentence of up to life in prison with the possibility of parole. With criminally negligent homicide, that is a Class E felony, which is the least severe felony possible," Knoxville attorney Keith Lowe told 10News. "The criminally negligent homicide conviction carries a penalty of up to two years in prison. The facilitation of aggravated burglary charge carries a maximum penalty of up to four years incarceration. So oddly enough, in this case the burglary conviction is more serious than the homicide."
Lowe said if judge Mary Beth Leibowitz decides to stack the sentences for each count consecutively, Cooper would still only face a maximum of six years hard time.
"Cooper has also already been incarcerated for a couple of years while awaiting trial. You are eligible to apply for parole after serving 30 percent of your sentence, so he would technically be eligible right now for any prison sentence," said Lowe. "Another option available to the judge is to sentence sentence Cooper to a very long amount of probation. Based on his criminal history and the current convictions, he could be sentenced to 18 years probation."
The investigation into the death of the woman known affectionately as "Miss Nola" Atkins began in March 2008 when she was found dead from a shotgun blast to the face in her Knoxville home. Her body was discovered by her son, Ron Martin.
As the jury read the guilty verdict, Martin broke into tears he described as being a combination of relief, joy, and sadness.
"It was my mother. When I lost her, it took me out. I talk to her everyday. I mean, she is still with me," said Martin. "This is what we have wanted is for someone who had something to do with this to be held accountable for their actions."
While the family celebrates Saturday's conviction, they emphasized it does not bring any closure.
"Especially when there are people out there who were involved in it who have not been to court. I just hope and pray that when God works with them and brings them in [to court], that we are still here to see it," said Martin.
Martin said he still asks the community for any help with the investigation that could lead to the conviction of others involved in the crime that killed his mother.
Reporter's Note: The original version of this story incorrectly said Cooper was convicted of felony murder, the initial charge sent to the jury. He was actually convicted of "criminally negligent homicide."