Two men convicted in the contract killing of a Malvern woman will spend the rest of their lives in prison for her murder after their sentencing Wednesday in federal court.
Donald Bill Smith, 38, of Malvern, and Samuel "Big Hit" Sherman, 38, of Batesville, were indicted in September 2019 on several charges in the shooting death of 44-year-old Suzen Cooper and were found guilty by a jury following nearly two weeks of testimony and more than six hours of jury deliberations last September.
Smith and Sherman were convicted on one count each of conspiracy to cause witness tampering resulting in death. In addition, Smith, the accused trigger man, was convicted on one count each of witness tampering resulting in death, aiding and abetting the use, carry and discharge of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime, and conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.
The men were sentenced to life in prison during back-to-back hearings Wednesday morning on the count of conspiracy to cause witness tampering. Smith also was sentenced to a second life term for the witness tampering count and 20 years for the drug conspiracy count, with the sentences to run concurrently. On the weapons count, Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. ordered Smith to serve 50 years in prison to run consecutively to the other three sentences.
Smith was represented by Blake Hendrix and Annie Depper. Sherman was represented by Jeff Rosenzweig and Birc Moreledge. The two men maintained their innocence throughout the hearings.
Throughout both hearings, the small courtroom gallery was crowded with family members of Cooper and the defendants.
Cooper, who federal officials said was a confidential informant at the time of her death, was last seen Sept. 26, 2016, in Malvern and was reported missing shortly after. Her skeletal remains were found in early August 2018 in a field off Grigsby Ford Road, a few miles west of Malvern.
In February 2017, her former sister-in-law, Racheal Cooper, was charged with first-degree murder and pleaded guilty in August 2018 to a reduced charge of hindering apprehension or prosecution. She was sentenced in Hot Spring County Circuit Court to 25 years in the Arkansas Department of Corrections.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Anne Gardner, who along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Bart Dickinson prosecuted the two men, Suzen Cooper bought methamphetamine from Sherman in 2015 shortly after he was released from federal prison on another drug conviction, resulting in Sherman's arrest on new drug charges in May 2016.
Gardner said the investigation showed Sherman, who was living in Batesville, contacted his cousin, Smith, in Malvern and arranged to have Suzen Cooper murdered to prevent her from testifying against him.
Evidence at the trial established that Sherman contacted Smith the following September after learning he was facing a lengthy prison term on the charge. Shortly after, Smith drove to Batesville, where Sherman lived, and 40 minutes later began the drive back to Malvern.
On the way back, prosecutors said, Smith called Racheal Cooper and arranged for her to bring Suzen Cooper to the Grigsby Ford Road location, ostensibly for a drug deal, but instead he shot Suzen Cooper several times, killing her. Afterward, he buried her body in a field adjacent to the spot where she was murdered.
Cooper's sister, Teena Latture, in an emotional statement to Marshall, described her sister as a caring, giving person, who "would open her door to anyone," and who fought hard to overcome years of drug addiction.
"This has affected our family in the worst way possible," she said. "Her son has been diagnosed with cancer. ... He's terminal, and he needs his mother. She's not here because of what they did."
Latture said throughout the almost two years her sister was missing, people who knew what had happened refused to help. She said she encountered Smith at her niece's graduation -- which was also his girlfriend's daughter's graduation -- where, she said, "he looked us straight in the face, no remorse, he knew my sister was laying in a hole and he didn't care."
"Suzen tried to get right," Latture continued. "She got involved in church ... helped with children's church, all kinds of stuff. She was trying. She was a good person. She just made bad choices, and a bad choice cost her her life."
She said her sister's children did not attend the trial because they were afraid.
"Not because they didn't want justice for their mom or because they didn't care, they didn't want their faces seen," she said. "They were scared."
Then, breaking down crying, Latture struggled to continue.
"The only one who could come was [Suzen Cooper's son] because he wants justice for his mother. When you're sick you want your mom. He needs his mom. His dad died of cancer, and his mom was taken from him because of the senseless, cowardly...," she said before trailing off completely, crying for several long moments before continuing.
"They thought she didn't matter," Latture continued. "She mattered. When you shot her five times, she mattered."
Speaking again briefly during Sherman's sentencing hearing, Latture said, "His kids are suffering, too. His wife is suffering. ... Everybody is suffering."
She said the irony of Sherman's position was that, had he simply gone to court and been sentenced on the drug count, he would be out of prison by now.
Given the chance to speak, Smith insisted he was innocent.
"I can't ask forgiveness for a crime I didn't commit," he said, as gasps were heard coming from Cooper's family. "I'm innocent. Keep looking and you might find what you're looking for."
Sherman also maintained his innocence.
"I'm a Black man that's innocent," he said. "I've never harmed Suzen Cooper or anyone else. I don't deserve a day for the charges brought against me."
In sentencing Smith, Marshall noted that lives on both sides had been devastated and would never be the same.
"The victim is gone, she is not with us, and Mr. Smith is facing the rest of his life in prison," the judge said. "The law is clear, Mr. Smith, with some details that I'll go over with you in a few minutes, that you will spend the rest of your life in prison."
As he sentenced Sherman, Marshall acknowledged that all concerned had suffered loss.
"A life was taken and another life, as Ms. Latture indicated, will be taken," Marshall said. "I understand that you maintain your innocence and I hear you loud and clear. ... We had 12 people, good and true, who made their best judgment. The jury, speaking for the community, has spoken."
Attorneys for both men indicated the sentences will be appealed.