Richard Cooper, 50, was still a teenager when he repeatedly pulled the trigger on a shotgun and murdered Steven Fridella, Bobby Martindale, and Gary Peterson in an execution-style killing in Pinellas County that became known as the "Highpoint Murders" in 1982.
In a Pinellas County courtroom Friday, just walking distance from the murder scene, Pinellas Circuit Judge Keith Meyer released the condemned killer from the Death Row cell where he's been awaiting execution for 30 years and re-sentenced him to three consecutive life terms behind bars.
"You're leaving this room today in far better shape," Meyer told Cooper. "You're no longer going to be spending 23 hours a day in a room without services."
Meyer had little choice than to commute Cooper's death penalty after six jurors who re-heard the case on appeal voted for a life sentence and six voted for the death penalty. That vote came after jurors considered evidence about Cooper's troubled childhood that a federal appeals court said should have been heard in his original trial.
Before his sentencing, Cooper told the judge his misspent youth and substance abuse both played a role in the shotgun slayings of the three victims.
"But the biggest factor and the one that brings me the most shame," Cooper said, "was my cowardice."
Reading from a prepared statement in a somber but steady voice, the convicted killer apologized directly to the families of his victims, even though none of them appeared to be present in the courtroom Friday.
"I blame only myself and accept full responsibility for my cowardice that caused the death of your sons, your father, your uncles, your brothers, your friends," Cooper said. "There are no words that I can say that will heal your souls. I will forever live with the burden I have of that guilt."
Meyer later thanked Cooper for his apology saying "I did take your comments to heart."
The judge then sentenced Cooper to three consecutive life terms, each of which carries a 25 year minimum/mandatory sentence, after saying there was no legal justification for re-imposing the death penalty after the jury's split recommendation.
Cooper will be 95 years old before he becomes eligible for parole.
"I do think you need to be punished," Meyer said. "It was three living human beings who were snuffed out that day.