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Felony hit-and-run charges against fired Manchester officer reduced to misdemeanors

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 23. 2013 9:39PM

MANCHESTER - Felony hit-and-run charges against fired Manchester police sergeant Stephen Coco have been reduced to misdemeanors, charges that would allow the 17-year police veteran to avoid a state prison sentence in the high-profile case.

Last Thursday, the special prosecutor in the case filed Class A misdemeanor charges of vehicular assault against Coco, claiming he was fiddling with a cell phone last March when he hit two Bedford teenagers outside their Harrod Lane homes.

He was driving an unmarked Manchester police vehicle at the time.

When arrested in late March, Coco faced two Class B felony conduct after an accident, each of which carries a 3 1/2 to seven-year prison sentence.

Marc Hathaway, the Sullivan County Attorney called in to prosecute the case, had faced a deadline of Monday to obtain a grand jury indictment. Hathaway said Monday that Coco has not been indicted.

The misdemeanor charges are "part of a prosecution strategy. It would be unprofessional for me to say anything more at this time," Hathaway said.

He stressed that nothing prevents him from seeking an indictment in the future.

A Class A misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in the county jail, a penalty that can be reduced by four months if the inmate behaves well in jail.

Prosecutors at times change or modify charges in a case as it nears its conclusion, often signaling a plea bargain is at hand.

However, prosecutors are forbidden to publicly discuss any plea negotiations before they are brought before a judge.

"The state is obviously looking toward resolving this case," Hathaway said.

The new charges also spell out a new wrinkle in the case. They allege that Coco was "attempting to access information on a cell phone," which interfered with his ability to maintain control of the car.

The accident sent both Noah Hickman and Dean Drukker to the hospital. Hickman suffered a broken elbow; Drukker had bleeding on the brain. Both were quickly released from the hospital.

Within days, Manchester Police Chief David Mara fired Coco from his $84,000-a-year job, which included work in the department's drug investigations unit. Police found he had violated numerous department regulations.

Hathaway is handling the case to avoid any potential conflict between Manchester police and the Hillsborough County Attorney's Office, which the police department deals with on a regular basis.

The new charges were filed Thursday, the same day a Hillsborough County grand jury was sitting.

State procedures call for prosecutors to obtain indictments 90 days after a felony arrest. Charges can be dismissed if a prosecutor does not do so.

On July 17, Hathaway requested a 60-day extension.

Superior Court Judge Gillan Abramson granted the extension, but noted the prosecution "has utterly failed to explain its ongoing delay."

Hathaway said Monday that his request for an extension was agreed to by Coco's attorney, Mark Howard.

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