The Usual Suspect
Stunning new evidence in the case of Kerry Max Cook casts serious doubt on his 1978 murder conviction–and points emphatically at another man.
On the morning of June 10, 1977, Linda Jo Edwards was found brutally murdered in her Tyler apartment. It was a horrifying scene. The 22-year-old, naked from the waist down, had been stabbed more than twenty times in her face, neck, chest, and pubic areas. Her mouth had been slit and parts of her body seemed to be missing—a piece of her lower lip, sections of her vaginal wall. It was one of the most heinous crimes in Smith County history.
There were no signs of forced entry, a signal to investigators that someone Edwards knew probably committed the crime. Her roommate, Paula Rudolph, told police that a man had been in Edwards’ room late that night, and though she didn’t get a good look at him, she assumed it was Edwards’ boyfriend, 44-year-old James Mayfield. The man she glimpsed had medium-length silver hair and white shorts; Mayfield had medium-length silver hair and, being a tennis buff, was known to wear white shorts much of the time.
Mayfield, aware that he would be a suspect, came to the police station later that day to tell his story. Yes, the father of three had been having an affair with Edwards. He had been the head librarian at Texas Eastern University and had hired her. They’d been seeing each other for a year and a half, but he swore it had ended three weeks before. More important, he had an alibi for the previous evening: he said he had been home with his wife, Elfriede, and his daughter, Luella. The police questioned Luella, and cleared Mayfield.
By then they had embraced an entirely different idea of who would have committed such a brutal, twisted crime. Three days after the murder, a psychologist named Jerry Landrum, who had previously worked with the DA and lived in Edwards’ apartment complex, looked at the crime scene photos and talked with officers about the murder. Then he offered them a psychological profile of the killer. It was a man, he said, between 18 and 30, probably gay or bisexual, maybe high on drugs, and definitely introverted. He was, Landrum testified in front of a grand jury, “a sexually inadequate male with pathological hostility” who mutilated the body in specific places “in hatred and anguish.”
Police began interviewing everyone at the apartment complex, and eventually a resident told officers about a young man who’d been staying with him who seemed to match the description. His name was Kerry Max Cook, and he had spent time behind bars for stealing cars; he’d also spent time at Rusk State Hospital, a facility for individuals with mental illness where he’d been evaluated as having an “inadequate personality (immaturity and impulsiveness).” Cook was young, long-haired, purposeless—and bisexual, considered by many in 1977 to be a sexual perversion. He’d also left town a few days after the murder. When his fingerprints matched those found on the outside of Edwards’ patio door, he was found and, in early August, arrested and charged with murder.
Thus began the first steps of what would become one of the most harrowing journeys through the criminal justice system in modern American history. Cook, who has always proclaimed his innocence, was tried three times for Edwards’ murder. In each trial, one of the main witnesses against him was Rudolph, who testified that she had seen him in Edwards’ room that night. Cook was convicted twice (the third trial ended in a hung jury) and sentenced to death. Twice, his death sentences were overturned, with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals pointing to egregious prosecutorial and police misconduct. In the twenty years Cook spent on death row, he tried to kill himself two times.
Cook was eventually freed on bond in 1997, pending an unprecedented fourth capital murder trial. But days before it would begin, prosecutors came to him with a plea bargain: plead “no contest” and walk free. He could maintain his innocence while the state could maintain its conviction. However, while he would be free, he would not be exonerated. Terrified of going back to death row, he took the deal.
In the aftermath, he became a criminal justice cause célèbre. He wrote Chasing Justice, a book about his experience. He was a subject of a popular play and movie called The Exonerated. Now, he gives speeches, pals around with anti-death penalty celebrities, and travels the world giving inspirational talks to teenagers. In Dublin he’s a hero. In Tyler he’s still a convicted killer.
But that could all change after Monday, June 6. In a Smith County courtroom, Cook’s attorneys from the Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of Texas will present shocking new evidence that finally gives him a chance to, if not prove his innocence, at least show that someone else was a much more likely person to have killed Linda Jo Edwards. Someone with the means, motive, and opportunity to kill her. Someone who modern DNA tests prove left his semen on her panties. Someone who recently admitted having sex with Edwards on the day before she died. Someone who felt she had ruined his life. Someone who was seen in her room not long before she was murdered. Someone who we now know positively was not Kerry Max Cook.
Someone like James Mayfield.
Everyone who gets sent to the Texas death row has a story, and each convict’s is unique in its own way. But no one has a story like Kerry Max Cook, which I wrote about in September 2015:
From 1978 to 1994, prosecutors took Cook to court three times, even though they didn’t have much evidence: fingerprints on a patio door, a jailhouse informant who said that Cook told him he killed her, the recollections of a gay man who said that on the night of the murder, he and Cook had had sex and watched a movie that involved a cat torture scene. Prosecutors came up with the bizarre but effective theory that Cook, whom they said was a latent homosexual, was aroused by the torture scene and then left the apartment and raped and killed Edwards, cutting off body parts, which he then stuffed in a stocking of hers that had gone missing.
But all of the evidence used against Cook proved to be problematic or downright fraudulent. It turned out that three different witnesses had testified to a grand jury that Cook told them he had met Edwards three days before the murder and had gone to her apartment, where they made out on the couch, which explained the fingerprints (prosecutors didn’t tell the defense about the witnesses). The jailhouse snitch confessed that he lied because he had been offered a reduced sentence for his own murder conviction. The man who testified he’d had sex with Cook had previously told a grand jury there was no sex—and that Cook had ignored the movie in the first place. And the missing stocking that was supposed to be full of souvenir body parts was found in 1992 rolled up in a pants leg of Edwards’ jeans by a juror who’d asked to look closely at the trial exhibits—fifteen years after the murder.
Cook’s first conviction, in 1978, was overturned on a technicality. The second trial, in 1992, ended in a mistrial. The third trial, in 1994, led to a second guilty verdict and death sentence, but in 1996 the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned it too, thundering that “prosecutorial and police misconduct has tainted this entire matter from the outset.” A concurring opinion said, “The state’s misconduct in this case does not consist of an isolated incident or the doing of a police officer, but consists of the deliberate misconduct by members of the bar, representing the state, over a fourteen-year period—from the initial discovery proceedings in 1977, through the first trial in 1978, and continuing with the concealment of the misconduct until 1992.”
It looked like Cook was finally on his way to exoneration, and he was released on bond in 1997. But Smith County wasn’t finished and set about trying him for a record fourth time. As the February 1999 trial date approached, prosecutors made him an offer: plead guilty in exchange for 20 years (which he had already served), and the charges would be dropped. Cook refused. He was innocent, he said.
Then, on February 4, a DPS analyst, examining Edwards’ underwear, found a previously unseen semen stain; the state moved to run modern DNA testing on the stain as well as a hair found on her buttock. According to reporter David Hanners of the Dallas Morning News, Assistant DA David Dobbs told him that the semen “could only have been left by the killer.” On the morning of jury selection, the DA shocked Cook with a final offer: plead no-contest and the case would be dismissed. Such a plea had never been allowed in a Texas death penalty case before, but with it, Cook could maintain his innocence (even though he wouldn’t be legally exonerated), while the state would keep its conviction. Cook’s advisors—suspicious that prosecutors were panicking because they knew his DNA would not be found in the sample–urged him to go to trial. Cook, though, terrified of going before a Smith County jury again and returning to death row, took the plea.
He should have waited. The DNA results came back two months later, and, as Cook had always insisted, it wasn’t him. In fact, the semen came from Mayfield.
Cook was ecstatic, but the Smith County DA’s office now said that they just confirmed what everyone knew—Edwards and Mayfield had a sexual relationship. Though Dobbs had told Hanners the DNA was essentially the smoking gun, now he told another reporter, “It’s irrelevant. Cook has been convicted of the murder.” And indeed he had.
Cook tried to move on with his life—and had a terrible time of it. He was free but still had a murder conviction on his record. “I couldn’t get a job, couldn’t sign a lease,” he said later. “We’ve had to move five times because people would find out about me. One woman threatened to put up posters in the neighborhood saying ‘Convicted murderer lives here.’” He couldn’t vote, own a gun, or run for office. In 2009 Cook befriended Marc McPeak, a civil lawyer who offered to help him. Three years later, McPeak, working with Dallas lawyer and Innocence Project of Texas member Gary Udashen, filed for DNA testing on other crime scene evidence—including a bloody knife. The lawyers also moved to recuse the judge who would rule on the testing. That judge was Jack Skeen, who had prosecuted Cook twice. Judge John Ovard okayed the testing and the recusal, sending all further matters to be decided by fellow Smith County district judge Christi Kennedy.
Next Udashen contacted the Innocence Project, which has used DNA testing to exonerate more than 300 people nationwide. Fifteen items from the crime scene, including Edwards’ stained bra, her jeans, cigarette butts, and blood on the knife, were sent to Cellmark Forensics lab near Dallas. They were tested over the next two and a half years; the final results came in March. The results corroborated the 1999 findings: None of Cook’s DNA was found on anything at the crime scene. More elaborate DNA testing on the underwear, though, got an even stronger profile of Mayfield.
That DNA evidence, tested in 2014 (20 years after Cook’s last trial and 15 after his no contest plea) has never been introduced into a court. And so, last year, Cook’s lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus, using it to claim Cook is innocent. They are also basing a claim on Texas’s recently passed “junk science statute,” which allows petitioners to use new forensic science to successfully attack a conviction. If a petitioner can show that, with the new scientific evidence, it’s more likely than not that a jury wouldn’t have convicted him, he can be awarded a new trial. It’s obvious, Cook’s lawyers said, that if the jury had seen that the semen belonged to Edwards’ ex-boyfriend, Cook would have been found not guilty. The lawyers also allege that the prosecutors knew when they offered the no contest plea that Mayfield’s DNA profile would be in the semen, not Cook’s, either because Mayfield or his attorney told them or they had a preliminary report from the lab.
The state fought back against Cook’s charges when it filed a response in November. Cook is not in prison, the state said, and so a district court in Smith County has no jurisdiction; besides, he’s made a good life out of his status and has “pursued a career as an ‘author,’ ‘lecturer,’ ‘lobbyist,’ ‘entertainer,’ and an ‘international celebrity.’” He also waited too long to file his writ—16 years—and a bunch of witnesses are dead or missing. Plus, the state argued, Cook knowingly took that plea bargain in 1999, so he has to live with it; and he was on record saying he knew the results wouldn’t point to him anyway.
As for the DNA evidence, the state asserted that it isn’t new (the 2014 results were essentially the same as the results from 1999), and also that the evidence didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know: Mayfield and Edwards had a sexual relationship. “It is impossible to determine scientifically when Mayfield’s DNA was placed on the victim’s underwear.” In addition, the brief asserted that there was other evidence of Cook’s guilt, and pointed to how Rudolph had pointed to Cook in court as the man she saw in Edwards’ room that night.
Earlier this year, the dramatic case got even more drama. In January Udashen filed a motion for the Smith County DA’s office to provide any exculpatory evidence it hadn’t provided before; DA Matt Bingham, who was elected in 2004 and never worked on the Cook case, offered up the entire case file, 50 boxes. This spring, Udashen and his partner, Bruce Anton, drove to Tyler three times and made copies of files. They found several pieces of evidence they didn’t know about—and one was explosive.
It was a police report filed in 1991 by Tyler PD detective Eric Liptak. Rudolph, Liptak wrote, told police she “thought” the man in the apartment was Mayfield. But Liptak went on: “Ms. Rudolph did later state that [t]he man she saw was Mr. Mayfield but that was after extensive questioning by Mr. Thompson, the lead prosecutor in the case.” In other words, according to the report, the lead prosecutor knew that Rudolph originally identified Mayfield as the man in the apartment. But prosecutors never gave Liptak’s report to the defense, as they are required to do. They never corrected Rudolph on the stand when she said she’d never identified Mayfield, nor did they correct her when she identified Cook at the trial as the man she saw in Edwards’ room.
All roads led to Mayfield, Udashen and Anton thought, a man who had never been properly investigated back in 1977. Even in the early days of the investigation, when Mayfield’s status as the boyfriend of the victim should have triggered a more intense investigative response, police had steered away from him. Perhaps it was because Mayfield’s lawyer, Buck Files, had refused their request for polygraphs of both Mayfield and his daughter—and then, just six days after the murder, cut off all further questioning of the Mayfields. As detective Eddie Clark later wrote in a police report, Files “didn’t want anyone else talking to his clients.” By then, police were looking for a “pathologically hostile” bisexual killer.
Udashen and Anton were certain Mayfield had lied about when he’d last had sex with Edwards—the DNA told them that—but also that Mayfield (or Files) had somehow indicated to prosecutors in 1999 that the semen was his. This spring, the two badgered Bingham, who had never talked to Mayfield, and the district attorney made the lawyers a highly unusual proposition: Let’s all go see what he has to say. Udashen and Anton jumped at the chance. Bingham reached out to Files, Mayfield’s attorney, about doing an interview. Bingham would offer immunity from prosecution for anything Mayfield said in the interview. He just had to tell what really happened back in 1977. Mayfield agreed.
The interview was held April 5 at Mayfield’s home in Houston. Udashen and Bingham asked questions, and Mayfield, whose wife sat in on the interview, gave answers. He had told some of this before, back in 1977 and 1992: how he had promised Edwards he would divorce his wife—and even filed for divorce—and how he and the younger woman had even moved in together at the Embarcadero Apartments, on May 13, and how his daughter came to his office and made a scene, threatening to kill Edwards if her dad didn’t end the affair. How after four days he realized he’d made a big mistake and returned home, wanting to reconcile with his wife. How upset Edwards had been when he broke it off. How the next day she had tried to commit suicide, taking sleeping pills, and how he had found her unconscious and taken her to the hospital. How afterward he asked Rudolph (who also worked for him at the library) to let Edwards stay at her apartment.
Mayfield said that everybody on campus knew about the suicide attempt, hospitalization, and scandalous affair, which led his boss to ask for his resignation. With his career in shambles, he was determined to save his marriage and even went to a counselor, who told him to stay away from Edwards.
But he couldn’t. And then Mayfield revealed that he had indeed lied for 39 years about one of the biggest elements of the case. His admission was made casually, as if it were just one more memory from an indelible afternoon. “The day before she was murdered was my birthday, June the 8th,” Mayfield said, “and I had gone to Linda’s apartment and we had had sex and then she gave me a bunch of presents.” (She gave him a tennis outfit, some shirts and socks, and a watercolor she had painted.) Cook’s attorneys were delighted, knowing they were one step closer to corroborating what a prosecutor himself admitted in the past: the semen “could only have been left by the killer.”
Mayfield also elaborated on what happened the next day, Edwards’ last, how she had called him and seen him multiple times. First she phoned him in the morning and said she wanted to come over to his office and water his plants. Around noon he was sitting with some other faculty members when she approached and asked if they could go somewhere to talk; she suggested Dairy Queen. Mayfield didn’t want to go but he did, and at the DQ she told him she wanted to move to a new apartment complex. So later, at 5, the two drove in two cars to go see one she had in mind. Afterward, Mayfield drove home, and between 6:30 and 7, Edwards showed up at his house, in front of his wife, and asked him to help with her car. “My car’s not really running right,” Mayfield remembered her saying. Within hours, she would be dead.
When Udashen was done with his questions, he felt he had laid out the strongest case yet that Mayfield had both opportunity and motive to kill Edwards: he was the last person seen with her, his DNA was found in her underwear, and he’d lost almost everything—job, career, home (the Mayfields had decided to move to Houston)—because of his affair.
Bingham (who declined to be interviewed) would have none of it, and when it was his turn, he asked Mayfield if he’d told previous prosecutors that the semen was his. “No,” Mayfield replied. Bingham asked straight out if Mayfield had killed Edwards. Again the reply was, “No.” They were friends, he said, and he was her only support. Bingham asked, “Is there anything about you having intercourse with her that day [June 8] that would have caused a problem with your wife, with you moving to Houston, or with the university that would have ever led you to harm her?” Mayfield replied, “Good Lord, no.”
Jim McCloskey isn’t so sure about that. In fact, McCloskey, who helps run the New Jersey nonprofit Centurion Ministries, has been waiting for 26 years to hear Mayfield admit he had sex with Edwards on his birthday, and it makes him even more certain that Mayfield killed her. McCloskey took an interest in Cook’s case in 1990. He and his group had had been working to exonerate wrongly convicted inmates since 1983 (Centurion’s work had, in 1990, helped exonerate Clarence Brandley, an inmate on the Texas death row) and when Cook wrote McCloskey asking for help, McCloskey began investigating.
What he found amazed him. No one had ever seriously investigated Mayfield. McCloskey interviewed more than 50 of Mayfield’s friends, neighbors, relatives, and colleagues, and took affidavits from some of them. None, McCloskey wrote, had been interviewed one-on-one by Tyler police, a sign, he said, of just how shabby the investigation was. McCloskey put together a report, pointedly titled, Why Centurion Ministries Believes James Mayfield Killed Linda Jo Edwards. “Remarkably,” he wrote, “these people who knew Mayfield at different times and through different means of association, almost to a person believe that Mayfield not only had the capacity to kill, but could very well have killed Linda Jo Edwards.” Mayfield’s distinctive personality trait, McCloskey found, was a fiery temper, likened to “a volcano” by one witness and “an electrical capacitor” by another. Mayfield, one witness said, was a guy who would “shake with red hot and glassy rage.” McCloskey interviewed nine women who had worked with Mayfield and wrote, “Eight described Mayfield as a vindictive, abusive, evil, and sick personality whose mood swings were unpredictable and frequent.” One of the women said, “We at the library were afraid after the murder because we suspected Mayfield of killing Linda.”
As for Mayfield’s motive, McCloskey found plenty of evidence to back up his theory that Edwards was obsessed with Mayfield and possibly stalking him. His secretary said that Edwards “totally worshipped Mayfield until the very end. There was nothing that she would not do for him.” Another co-worker said that, during the period after Mayfield returned to his wife, Edwards said out loud two or three times, “I am going to get him back, no matter what.”
McCloskey also got an affidavit from Frederick Mears, a psychology professor at UT Tyler (formerly Texas Eastern), who said that he’d found a book in the library called The Sexual Criminal: A Psychoanalytical Study, which contained graphic photos of victims of sex crimes. Mears stated that Mayfield had ordered the book sometime in 1976 and another professor confirmed that Mears had complained to him about Mayfield doing so (Mayfield denied ordering it). The injuries in several of the photos, McCloskey said, mirrored the injuries Edwards suffered. He wondered if Mayfield had used it as a textbook for murder.
McCloskey didn’t keep his research a secret—in fact, it was the backbone of Cook’s defense in both his 1992 and 1994 trials, where his lawyers asserted that Mayfield was the actual killer. Today, in light of the recent interview and the police report confirming Mayfield’s presence in Edwards’ apartment, McCloskey is more certain than ever that Mayfield was the killer: “Linda Jo still loved Mayfield,” he says. “She knew she could seduce him and bring him back through their sexual addiction. So she invites him to the apartment on June 8–his 44th birthday–and showers him with gifts and they have sex. The next day she visits him four times. In his mind
she won’t go away. His narcissism blames her for destroying everything he holds dear–family, career, his entire way of life, yet he knows he can’t resist
her if she is nearby. In the interview he concedes she might follow him to Houston. If she does, the turmoil and turbulence in his life will never end. So he snaps and ends it by destroying that which he believes destroyed him.”
All of that is just a theory, of course. But it seems to be more coherent than the one offered by the state back in 1978, one that has been factually dismantled ever since, the one saying that Cook, after having gay sex on his couch, was so aroused watching a cat-torture scene in a Kris Kristofferson movie on the TV that he left and went to Edwards’ apartment and butchered her in a state of frenzy.
It’s exceedingly difficult to win on a habeas writ, especially in a death case. But Cook, helped by the powerful Innocence Project, seems to have his best shot at vindication—and maybe a finding of actual innocence. Partly this is because of the overwhelming new and uncovered evidence that Cook didn’t kill Edwards—and that maybe Mayfield did. The judge doesn’t have to find that Cook’s lawyers proved Mayfield killed Edwards—all he has to do is find that, with the new evidence, no jury would have convicted Cook.
Another reason Cook stands a chance is that the judge in the case is not from Smith County or Tyler, a small town with a very tight legal community, many of the members of which have connections to this troubling case. Consider the county’s four district court judges, one of whom is Jack Skeen, who prosecuted Cook in 1992 and 1994. Another judge is Carole Clark, who is married to the prosecutor in Cook’s first trial, A.D. Clark III. The judge who was originally set to adjudicate Cook’s habeas writ was Christi Kennedy, whose late husband Richard was an assistant DA under Skeen. Cook’s lawyers asked Kennedy to recuse herself and she did, in September.
The new judge, Jack Carter from Texarkana, retired in 2014 from the Sixth District Court of Appeals, which handled appeals from 19 different northeast Texas counties—but not Smith. After the hearing he will make recommendation to the CCA on whether to turn down the writ or grant it—and if so, whether to recommend Cook should get a new trial or be found innocent.
Cook, who lives in Toms River, New Jersey, with his wife and son, will be in attendance, as will several of the men who prosecuted him and investigated his case. Cook hasn’t seen any of them since he was freed in 1997. Mayfield will be there too, with his wife and daughter. McCloskey will make the trip as well. They’ll testify and tell their stories, which should take the better part of a week. If there’s any justice in this world, the hearing will conclude on Friday, June 10, which is the 39th anniversary of the murder of Linda Jo Edwards.