Saturday, June 16

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A woman who first lied about a murder case as a teenager and then helped solve it as an adult should stay in prison, the murder victim's family said yesterday. Melanie Paquette Cooper asked a three-judge panel to reduce her prison sentence to the six months she has already served, arguing she cooperated with police on a 20-year-old murder case that had stalled.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeff Strelzin said he supported the shortened sentence because without Cooper, the case likely would have remained unsolved.

"Unfortunately, part of what we have to do is make deals with people who are directly involved with murders," Strelzin said after the hearing.

Cooper was the state's key witness last year against Eric Windhurst, a high school classmate who fatally shot Cooper's stepfather, Danny Paquette, in 1985. Cooper admitted in 2005 that she went with Windhurst to Paquette's Hooksett farm.

Prosecutors recommended a suspended five-year sentence, but a judge gave her three to six years in prison.

The sentencing review panel — which can increase, decrease or sustain the original sentence — did not issue a decision yesterday.

"She's been lying to everyone in her life for the last 20 years," said Doug Paquette, Danny Paquette's nephew. "She had her day in court and she blew it."

Cooper, who was 15 at the time, said she told Windhurst, then 17, that Paquette had sexually abused and raped her and she feared he would hurt her again if he learned she was back in New Hampshire. She had been living in another state.

Prosecutors said Windhurst had learned about the same time that his sisters had been molested in separate incidents, and the shooting was his form of revenge.

"He offered to kill Danny Paquette. He had to take his anger out on someone, and he took it out on Danny Paquette," Strelzin said during the hearing. "He did it more for his own reasons than for her."

Still, Paquette's family said the blame lies with Cooper.

"They took the ride, he took the rifle, they walked through the woods that she walked through as a child. I understand she didn't have a happy childhood; I'm sorry for that," said Nadine Larrabee, Danny Paquette's sister. "The bottom line is without Melanie Cooper, my brother would not be dead. She was the catalyst. She provided the victim."

Windhurst told a girlfriend years later that Cooper wanted Paquette dead. But Cooper testified that she didn't take his offer to kill her stepfather seriously, even as she walked with him toward Paquette's farm.

Windhurst pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is serving a 15-to-36-year prison sentence.

Cooper, 37, a married mother of five whose family lives in Evanston, Wyo., pleaded guilty to hindering apprehension for initially lying to police.

"The idea of Danny Paquette, of his not being there, his not existing as a fear factor in my life, was not possible," she told the New Hampshire Union Leader in a prison interview.

So many people had said over the years, "Danny should die," that even when her 17-year-old friend from high school, Eric Windhurst, said he would kill Paquette, she didn't believe he would really go through with it, she said.

"I feel responsible for what happened. But I didn't point out Danny Paquette. I didn't beg Eric to shoot Danny Paquette. I wish I could have believed him when he told me he was going to do these things. But I didn't see it," she said.

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