Teacher pleads guilty to pot charge

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Marshall County High School teacher caught with marijuana while on school property nearly seven weeks ago pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in General Sessions Court on Tuesday, officials said.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is over and I'm going to go on with the rest of my life," Robert Jeffrey Cooper, 51, of Chapman Road said in the Marshall County Courthouse shortly after walking out of Judge Steve Bowden's courtroom.

Cooper was arrested on Oct. 21 and charged by Sheriff's Deputy Travis Childers with simple possession of marijuana on school property. Simple possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor. Having marijuana on school property is a felony.

Judge Bowden accepted Cooper's guilty plea on a misdemeanor charge of simple possession, according to the former teacher's defense attorney, David McKenzie, who said the original charge was a Class E felony.

If convicted of such an offense, a defendant with little or no criminal record might expect to face a sentence ranging from one to two years with just under a third of it to be served depending on parole board decision, according to two interpretations of Tennessee Code Annotated.

Cooper was sentenced to 11 months and 29 days in jail, but all of that time was suspended except 48 hours.

"He's already served 24 hours," McKenzie said.

That time was served after he was arrested and before he was released on $6,000 bond, the attorney said. The second 24 hours are to be served this weekend. The former teacher paid a $250 fine and nearly $50 in costs to the criminal justice system.

"Mr. Cooper has accepted full responsibility for his actions," McKenzie said. "He could have very easily chosen to lie to school officials in order to avoid this prosecution, but instead he confessed and has also tendered his resignation to the Marshall County School Board effective immediately."

The county school system started advertising that it has an opening for a behavioral intervention training teacher on Dec. 3. Applicants will probably be interviewed starting next week, according to Mitchell Byrd. Applications were due Tuesday.

Nashville-based attorney Charles Cagle served as legal counsel for the school system as it approached the legalities raised by Cooper's arrest and subsequent suspension without pay.

Cooper's attorney said that he and Cagle "spoke at length about what would be the best outcome for both the school board and Mr. Cooper."

Cooper could have exercised certain rights which would have caused the school board a great deal of time and trouble, the Lewisburg-based defense lawyer said.

"His voluntary resignation didn't lead to the reduced charge," McKenzie said, "but it does demonstrate his character for truthfulness even when he has made a mistake.

"He was penitent," the defense attorney said of his client.

Cooper told MCHS Principal Jacob Sorrells that the marijuana was his, according a report filed by the school's security resource officer. But that confession was after the principal asked the teacher to repeat what he'd said earlier, apparently in private with the principal. Deputy Childers reported Cooper first said he found the marijuana.

Information received for this report from two sources indicated that Cooper had withdrawn cash from a sport coat pocket to pay for lunch at school and a marijuana cigarette butt was seen in his hand with the money.