The Last Man Exonerated

Kerry Max Cook walked off death row in 1997, but he was never officially exonerated. At least not yet. He just filed a DNA motion he hopes will clear his name.
Thu March 1, 2012 10:00 pm
Robert Rummel-Hudson

Kerry Max Cook walked off Texas’s death row in 1997, but earlier this week he filed two motions in the 241st District Court in Smith County that he hopes will finally clear his name. Cook (pictured above) and his Dallas lawyers, working with the New York-based Innocence Project, petitioned for post-conviction DNA testing on untested evidence he is certain will show once and for all that he is innocent of killing Linda Jo Edwards in Tyler in 1977. He also asked to have the DNA motion considered by a judge from outside Smith County, where he claims he was a victim of “the most well-documented and notorious instance of prosecutorial misconduct in the annals of Texas jurisprudence.”

Now would seem to be a good time to file these motions. Since 2000, four dozen Texans have been exonerated, most by DNA evidence. Recently we’ve seen several high-profile cases in which men sent to prison—including death row—were exonerated and freed, to great fanfare. Timothy Cole, convicted of rape in Lubbock in 1985, was  exonerated posthumously in 2009 after a court of inquiry found him innocent. Anthony Graves, a former death row inmate, was  freed in 2010 after a special prosecutor found his trial prosecutor had “handled this case in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system’s nightmare.” Michael Morton, convicted of killing his wife in 1987, was  freed in October after tests revealed his wife’s blood and another man’s DNA on a bandana near the crime scene. 

Cook was released when these other men were still in prison. Any yet, unlike them, he is not legally an exoneree. That’s because, even though his death sentence was overturned twice by higher courts, and even though DNA taken from the murder victim didn’t match him, when prosecutors were preparing to put him on trial for a fourth time, Cook pleaded no contest instead of not guilty. Thirteen years later, his murder conviction is still on his record.

Why did Cook plead no contest to a murder he didn’t commit? Good question. Cook’s case is a strange one, one of the strangest in Texas history. He was arrested in June 1977 for the rape and murder of Linda Jo Edwards, who had been stabbed, beaten, and mutilated in her apartment. Her roommate told of seeing a man at the apartment whom she assumed was James Mayfield, a married man with whom Edwards had been having an affair. But the affair had ended three weeks before the murder. Police instead zeroed in on Kerry Max Cook, who lived in the same complex and whose fingerprints were found on a patio door of the apartment. Cook said he was innocent.

The prosecution made a strong case at Cook’s first trial in 1978. A police detective testified that his fingerprints could actually be dated as having been left there within hours of the murder. The roommate who originally thought the killer was Mayfield now said it was Cook. A jailhouse snitch said Cook confessed to him that he’d killed Edwards. And a gay hairdresser named Robert Hoehn said that on the night of the murder he and Cook had watched the movie  The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea; Hoehn said he had performed sex acts on Cook, who also had masturbated during a scene involving the torture of a cat. The prosecution’s theory was that Cook, aroused by the torture scene, had rushed out to rape, kill, and mutilate Edwards, a total stranger. Cook, who says he knew Edwards and had visited her apartment by invitation (thus accounting for the prints), was found guilty, convicted, given the death penalty, and sent to death row.

Ten years later, stories in the  Dallas Morning News began alleging serious improprieties at the original trial. For example, the snitch admitted that he had lied as part of a deal with prosecutors (his pending murder charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter in exchange for his testimony), and the detective’s testimony about being able to tell the age of fingerprints was shown to be highly misleading, if not downright absurd. In 1991 Cook’s sentence was overturned on a technicality and sent back to the trial court.

By this point, the state’s case was in the hands of a tough prosecutor named Jack Skeen, who had been elected Smith County DA in 1983. Cook had found his own advocate in Jim McCloskey of Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey group that helps the wrongly convicted. Centurion did some research and found four dozen people who knew Mayfield, the man Edwards had been having an affair with; none had ever been interviewed by police. McCloskey became convinced of Cook’s innocence and wrote a report titled “Why Centurion Ministries Believes Jim Mayfield Killed Linda Jo Edwards.”

Cook’s second trial was moved to Williamson County in 1992, but it ended in a hung jury and a mistrial. By this point other evidence that suggested prosecutorial misconduct had been revealed—the state hadn’t turned over evidence that Mayfield’s teenaged daughter had repeatedly threatened to kill Edwards in the weeks before her death. The state also withheld evidence that Cook and Edwards did indeed know each other and that Hoehn had originally told the grand jury that he had not had sex with Cook (who, he had also said, didn’t pay any attention to the movie). Finally, the state hadn’t revealed a written statement from the detective who had testified about the age of the fingerprint in which he said he had told prosecutors this opinion was unsound and couldn’t be backed up by any science. Still, he stated, prosecutors pressed him to give it, and he did, to devastating effect.

At trial number three, in 1994, even without the testimony of the snitch or the detective regarding the age of the fingerprints, the state was allowed to use the testimony of Hoehn, who had recently died. Cook was again found guilty and again given the death penalty.

In 1996 Cook finally got his first vindication. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the

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