Doctor sentenced in crash that killed ballerina

Raymond Cook appears in a Wake County courtroom
March 1, 2011 3:24:11 PM PST
A Raleigh jury convicted a local plastic surgeon Tuesday of driving drunk in the death of an aspiring dancer with the Carolina ballet.

Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith III then sentenced Raymond Cook - a former employee of WakeMed - to 36 to 53 months in prison. Cook did not apologize to Elena Shapiro's family or have any other words as he was led away in handcuffs.

The verdict was a small victory for the defense, as the jury chose involuntary manslaughter, and did not opt for the more serious charge of second-degree murder. Cook was also found guilty of felony death by motor vehicle and driving while impaired. Under North Carolina law, the felony death by motor vehicle charge takes precedence in regards to sentencing.

Prosecutors say Cook was driving at more than 80 miles-per-hour in a 45 zone when he plowed into the back of 20-year-old Shapiro's car on Strickland Road September 11, 2009.

At sentencing, Judge Smith quoted the prosecution, saying: "A bright light went out September 11, 2009." He called Cook's offense "egregious." He gave Cook the maximum sentence - pointing out that the jury found an "aggravating factor" - that Cook knowingly created the great risk of death - and that outweighed the mitigating factors presented by the defense.

Before Smith handed down his sentence, Shapiro's mother Brantly was allowed to speak. Of her daughter, she said: "You try to keep them safe your whole life and when something like this happens you feel like you failed."

Shapiro's aunt told Smith she was angry that the defense presented Cook as a standup person.

"Standup people don't kill people," she said.

During his sentencing presentation, lead prosecutor Jeff Cruden told Judge Smith that "It's probably the most egregious felony death my motor vehicle case I've ever worked on."

The conviction is not Cook's first. Records show he was stopped Camden County, Georgia in 1989 for doing 110 in 65 miles-per-hour zone. He was also charged with DWI. Court records in North Carolina show that same year he was charged with DWI in this state, but the charges were dropped.

During its presentation at the sentencing phase, the defense argued that Cook pleaded no contest to the 1989 Georgia charge, and therefore it couldn't be counted as a prior conviction.

Defense lawyers also presented statements from many of Cook's former patients who spoke of his good character. They also said he has entered drug and alcohol programs since the wreck.

During Cook's trial, evidence showed he began drinking the afternoon of September 11 while playing golf at the Raleigh Country Club. He later left and went to Piper's Tavern where a manager refused to serve him another drink after noticing he was intoxicated. A witness said she saw Cook and a woman in the parking lot of Piper's and asked if he had a ride.

But prosecutors say Cook got behind the wheel anyway. After leaving Piper's, witnesses testified that Cook was travelling at high speed in his black Mercedes down Strickland Road before he ran a red light at Lead Mine Road. Shapiro had just made a right turn from Lead Mine on to Strickland when Cook hit her from behind. The force of the crash crushed Shapiro's car.

A Mercedes mechanic testified that the computer in Cook's car showed it was moving at 88 miles per hour at impact.

In his closing, Cruden detailed all the drinks witnesses said Cook consumed between the time he arrived at the country club around midday and the crash around 8:30 p.m. He allegedly consumed beer on the golf course and then multiple mixed drinks when he got back to the clubhouse.

"He's an alcoholic," charged Cruden.

Cook, sitting with his lawyers, was seen to shake his head.

Cook's defense team said he did not act with malice - the key argument the prosecution had to prove to win a second-degree murder conviction.

"This was no accident. Of course this was no accident, but this was not murder," said defense attorney Roger Smith Jr. in his closing. "He had too much to drink and he drove too fast. There's no way that's malice."

Smith also talked about how Cook got out of his car and performed CPR on Shapiro after the crash.

Following the crash, Cook gave up his medical license and left positions he once held at WakeMed and the UNC School of Medicine. According to WakeMed hospital's website, Cook was a facial reconstructive expert.

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