An important ruling on the concept of self-defense resulted from one of the most famous murder trials in Tennessee history. On November 9, 1908, Robin Cooper shot and killed Edward W. Carmack in downtown Nashville. Cooper was the son of Duncan Cooper, an important Nashville publisher and close friend and advisor to Governor Malcolm Patterson. Carmack, a former U.S. senator, was the editor of the Nashville Tennessean and a leading champion of the prohibitionist cause.
Carmack and the elder Cooper had once been friends, but the two split over prohibition. When Cooper supported Patterson’s anti-prohibition gubernatorial campaign, Carmack responded with a series of editorials defaming both Patterson and Cooper. Tensions mounted, and Carmack and the Coopers armed themselves in anticipation of a violent confrontation. On November 9, 1908, the Coopers spotted Carmack on a Nashville street. When Duncan Cooper crossed the street and shouted to get Carmack’s attention, the startled editor pulled his gun. Robin Cooper stepped between the men and drew his gun. Carmack fired twice, hitting Robin Cooper in the shoulder and his coat sleeve. The younger Cooper shot three times, killing Carmack.
Both Coopers were tried and convicted of murder in early 1909 and immediately appealed their convictions. The Tennessee State Supreme Court heard Cooper v. State of Tennessee in 1910. In a divided decision that gained national attention, the justices reversed Robin Cooper’s conviction “for jury instruction errors and remanded for retrial.” Robin Cooper “was put in jeopardy on remand, whereupon the prosecutor requested and the judge directed a verdict of acquittal.” (1) However, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Duncan Cooper, although he never fired a single shot, on the grounds of “proximate cause,” that is, that he had provoked the incident by approaching Carmack. Nashville’s three newspapers printed every word of the judges’ opinions in the days following the trial.
Within the hour of the Supreme Court’s decision, Governor Patterson issued a pardon for his old friend Cooper. Prohibitionists revolted against the pardon of Carmack’s killer, destroying Patterson’s chances for a third term as governor and opening the way for the election of Ben W. Hooper, Tennessee’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.