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Defense says killer had 'particularly bad' childhood

When Defense Attorney Wilfrid Rumble presented his case in the trial of Jason Duane Cooper on Monday, March 23, in Vista Superior Court, the focus was on Cooper’s “traumatic” childhood that he said included abandonment, abuse, losses and bullying.

Cooper is charged with the April 26, 2006, murders of his 53-year-old mother-in-law, Robyn Liebner, and 16-year-old sister-in-law, Jenna Liebner. He has claimed that he is not guilty by reason of insanity.

“His childhood was particularly bad,” said Dr. Clark Clipson, a clinical and forensic psychologist. “Those [type of] environments can have far-reaching impacts on our lives.”

Mental state according to the defense

Clipson testified that he performed a neuropsychological evaluation on Cooper and found him “fairly intact” with cognitive functions, but that as testing progressed it “became evident that there were more psychiatric issues in his case.”

Cooper, who was 24 when he killed the two women three years ago, remained passive as he listened to the description and diagnosis of his mental condition.

Clipson’s opinion was that Cooper suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder and major depressive disorder and had some features consistent with dissociative disorders.

“His PTSD is of severe intensity <and> has had a severe impact on his life,” Clipson said, “and it goes back to age 6, at least.”

Defense counsel Rumble asked the psychologist, “Given what you know in this case, do you have an opinion of his overall mental condition <at the time of the homicides>?”

“He had not gotten treatment for his condition,” responded Clipson. “He had tried to ‘tough it out.’ It was obvious his stress had increased; he was cutting himself again, acting out in his marriage <and> financially and was not in a ‘good place’ at that time. There is evidence that his symptoms were worsening. His PTSD was prevalent.”

The troubled childhood

Recapping what Cooper related about his childhood, Clipson told the jury that Cooper was born to an unwed teenage mother who relinquished him to his father when the boy was 18 months old. His mother died when he was 7.

“<A mother’s death> is a significant loss to a child,” Clipson said, “and his father was the source of many traumas in his life.”

Clipson contended that Cooper’s father was physically abusive, injected him with drugs, forced him to smoke marijuana and exposed him to episodes of domestic violence. He also stated that Cooper was repeatedly sexually molested by one of his father’s friends.

Because Cooper was not entered into school at the appropriate age, Clipson said Cooper was “behind academically,”’ which caused him to develop of pattern of being a braggart to increase his own self-worth.

Clipson also claimed that because Cooper had a tendency to tell untruths, “other kids picked on [Cooper] and he was bullied.”

Clipson said Cooper told him that as a result of his childhood experiences, he “never felt close to anyone,” except his maternal grandmother – who took him in at age 6 and passed away when he was 18 – and his wife, Amber Liebner.

“He identified with <Amber> and what she had been through,” Clipson said. “He felt she was the only person, outside of his grandmother, who supported him.”

A turbulent marriage

Although Clipson claimed Cooper valued his relationship with Amber, he disclosed in testimony that Cooper was unfaithful in his marriage.

“He would cheat on his wife and then punish himself for that,” Clipson said, adding that Cooper had frequent arguments with Amber during which he repeatedly warned her.

“Don’t ever push me; I’m afraid of what I’ll do,” Cooper said to his wife, according to Clipson.

The psychologist also said that when Cooper was under stress he would feel “shaky,” “throw up,” “hyperventilate” or get “tearful.”

It was also disclosed that Cooper had a history of paranoia, irritability, angry outbursts, self-mutilation (cutting his wrists/arms), striking himself with a coat hanger and breaking things when frustrated.

Truth or fabrication?

In cross examination, Deputy District Attorney Kimberlee Lagotta was quick to seek confirmation from Clipson that his psychological conclusions in Cooper’s case were a result of information provided by the defendant after he had been arrested for the killings.

“There are no records from CPS [Child Protective Services] to confirm any [of his childhood abuse], is there?” Lagotta asked.

“That’s correct,” Clipson said.

“So you have no real proof that any trauma happened; all you know is what Cooper said or told people?” Lagotta asked.

Clipson agreed.

Lagotta discussed the possibility that Cooper could be malingering – in other words, fabricating or exaggerating symptoms of mental disorders in order to get a lighter criminal sentence. Clipson said he had taken that possibility into consideration.

“I relied on what he told me,” Clipson said.

Sequence of the killings

Earlier in the trial, forensic consultant and crime scene reconstruction expert Brian Kennedy testified for the prosecution as to what he had surmised from the crime scene after studying the blood stain patterns present in the residence.

Kennedy said it appeared that Jenna had been killed first and that the attack began in the kitchen area and progressed into the living room.

“Jenna was inching along the carpet, probably on her hands and knees,” to get away from Cooper, Kennedy said.

After Jenna succumbed to her injuries in the living room, Cooper is said to have gone into a bathroom, where he attempted to wash blood from his hands and the knife used in the killing.

“Then we see a blood trail into the master bedroom…finger marks on one nightstand…and finger marks on papers inside the drawer of the nightstand…” Kennedy said, explaining that the trail came to a stopping point in front of a bedroom window that looks out onto the front of the Liebner property, where horse corrals are located.

It appeared from testimony that after Cooper killed Jenna, he may have stood by the window in the master bedroom and watched Robyn finish feeding the family’s horses before she returned to the house.

Kennedy said blood stain evidence found in the home’s foyer and the injuries sustained by Robyn led him to conclude she had been attacked from behind after entering the home.

“She had several severe stab wounds to her chest, face, neck and back, many of which could have been fatal,” Kennedy said. “[The wounds] are consistent with [the attacker] standing behind her.”

Based on the way both bodies were positioned in the foyer when law enforcement arrived on the scene, blood stain evidence from the living room to the entryway and evidence on Jenna’s body, Kennedy surmised that after killing his mother-in-law Cooper dragged the teenager by one of her ankles to the area where her mother was located and “rolled her partially on top of Robyn Liebner.”

Due to the amount of defensive wounds sustained by both women, Kennedy said it was obvious that they fought for their lives.

Watch the Village News for continuing coverage of the trial.

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