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The Nature of Innocence

Why this issue’s very long story is a very important story.

By April 2017Comments

Exoneree Kerry Max Cook has spent forty years trying to clear his name.
Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Forty years ago this summer, a 22-year-old secretary named Linda Jo Edwards was found brutally murdered in her apartment, in Tyler. Authorities zeroed in on a suspect, a long-haired misfit from out of town named Kerry Max Cook, who was charged with her death. Though Cook maintained from the beginning that he was innocent—and the police investigation was problematic in many ways—he was convicted at trial a year later. Branded a monster, a deviant, the most notorious killer in Smith County, he was sent, at age 22, to death row in Huntsville.

In June 2016 Cook’s legally fraught and bitterly fought journey ended when the Smith County DA’s office, after having sought Cook’s conviction four different times, finally agreed to set aside his verdict. At long last, Cook was exonerated. It should have been his greatest moment—the vindication he had wanted for more than three decades. Instead, his exoneration brought him not relief but fury: for years, he’d suffered the loss of his freedom and abuse at the hands of his fellow prisoners, and now, at least in his mind, the prosecutors who had sought his conviction so stridently got to walk away without so much as an admonition. Blinded by his anger—and unwilling to wait for his nemeses to face a court of inquiry later—Cook fired his attorneys and declared that he would just as soon have his wrongful conviction reinstated, saying, “I’d rather be convicted again than live with this lie.”

Soon after, he changed his mind again. He’d been upset, he explained. All he wanted was for the truth to come out. This incredible saga—and it is a saga—told by executive editor Michael Hall deserves every ounce of attention you can give it (“The Trouble With Innocence”). It is a gripping and important read, full of questions about the workings of Smith County’s legal system, our cultural biases, the nature of innocence, and what we expect from, and owe, exonerees. Hall deftly takes us through the excruciating moments Cook suffered over the many years he spent in the criminal justice system. The story invites us to grapple with the imperfections of that system, witness the toll it can take on those who fall victim to its flaws, and remember just how high the stakes are—for all of us.

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  • ClaySConrad

    Kerry Max Cook isn’t alone.

    • No. There has been no accounting of the lives ripped apart by Smith County’s corrupt, reault-oriented “legal system” that persecutes based on race, and sexual orientation and more. Ask me. I am an encyclopedia on Smith County.

  • Jennifer Scully

    The justice system is fatally wounded. It is supposed to be used to fairly determine the guilt or innocence of someone accused of a crime. Instead it is being used to cover up, falsely accuse, manipulate evidence and condemn innocent people simply because nobody wants to admit fault. Just like everything else in this world, it comes down to money. If they admit that this man is innocent, well, there will be a payout and rightfully so. How much is a life of torture and suffering worth? They don’t want us to find out. It is time for those that hold any type of authoritative office to be held accountable for their actions. We actually live in a society where cops can frame people for murder, judges can sentence innocent people to death and when proven innocent, they won’t proclaim them “actually innocent” because they don’t want to be sued. I am disgusted by this. It can happen to any one of us and something has to be done to ensure that this doesn’t continue!

  • Kerry Cook speaks for a documentary video he calla Crime & Punishment — the “crime” of being framed and the “Punishment” of the excurciating 40 year road endured resulting from it.

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  • Sandy Pressey

    This story is nearly impossible to cover because the misconduct spans 40 years and several generations of the Smith County DA’s office and the Tyler Police Department. But this TM story was an amazing attempt. I will post comments daily that include documented misconduct that was NOT covered in the story. I have the documentation because I am Kerry Max Cook’s wife.

    For today, I will start with page 179 because it is so simple and my time is limited right now – “Most troubling of all for law enforcement officials, word came from the jail where Cook was housed that a fellow inmate there had heard him confess.” The Edward Jackson recantation was partially covered in this story. What was missing is that police were not troubled by Jackson’s statement, they were troubled by his inability to pass a polygraph on his statement to police. Detective Eddie Clark (yes, the same Tyler Police Detective that illegally took the murder weapon and a sample of Kerry’s hair from the police evidence room and kept it in his home as souvenirs for a decade) was told by polygraph operator M.T. Mcleroy, “Evaluation of this subject’s polygrams did reveal to this examiner significant criteria which would indicate deception at questions pertaining to the truthfulness of subject to the Tyler Police Department. When confronting subject with the results of this test, he admitted lying to the Tyler Police Department on some of the information he had told them but said some of the original statement was the truth. After the statement was amended omitting the deception, a second test was administered to the polygraph subject pertaining to the truthfulness of his second statement. Evaluation of this second set of polygrams did reveal to this examiner significant criteria which would indicate deception at questions pertaining to the subject’s truthfulness to the Tyler Police Department. After confronting subject with the results of his second series of tests, he continued to maintain his truthfulness in his amended statement to the Tyler Police Department.”

    These 2 exculpatory Edward Jackson FAILED polygraphs were mistakenly given to us in 2012 during a routine Public Information Act request. To this day, we have never been given copies of the exculpatory Tyler Police Department statements on these failed polygraphs. What we do have today compliments of the Tyler Police Department – the 1 passed polygraph dated several days after the 2 failed ones and the accompanying 3rd police statement, oh and the stench of Jackson’s original false 1978 trial testimony.

  • Sandy Pressey

    Kerry Cook’s wife here with Part 2 of more documented misconduct by the Tyler Police department regarding how they handled a witness who gave them incriminating information on Mayfield literally days after the murder.

    Dr. Gary Mears, a psychology professor who was a colleague and friend of Mayfield’s at Texas Eastern University, was approached by Mayfield within a few days of Linda Edward’s murder. Dr. Mears was conducting research on polygraphs and Mayfield asked Mears to help him “beat” a lie detector test. Mears declined. Because Linda Edward’s had been mutilated, Mears decided to confront Mayfield at this time about a book on mutilation murders that Mayfield had ordered for the library. Mayfield looked worried and upset.

    Mears was so disturbed by his conversation with Mayfield that he called the Tyler police to report it. He asked to speak with the Chief of Police and he was transferred to a high level official who he thought was the Chief but may have been a detective. He relayed his conversation that day with Mayfield concerning the mutilation book and Mayfield’s request for assistance in “beating” a polygraph. The policeman did not ask any follow-up questions of Mears or try to find out more information. He simply told Mears that the police would get back to him and quickly hung up.

    Rather than getting back with Dr. Mears, police promptly called Buck Files, Mayfield’s attorney, and told him of the call they had received from Mears. Buck Files in turn called his client and notified Mayfield of what the police told him about Mears reporting to them. This led to Mayfield confronting Mears, causing Mears to be concerned for his own safety.

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  • Justin Evans

    3 generations of prosecutorial misconduct, a man raped and tortured for years while on death row who turned down a deal because the system was not held accountable for their actions. Why have faith in our system to do what’s right when they have shown they don’t have too. There is no room for error correction even when people’s lives are terrorized. I personally question any conviction that comes out of Smith county after hearing about his. I can not bring myself to trust a single word from judges or prosecutors when they won’t hold their own accountable. Grant Kerry actual innocence (YOU ALREADY OFFERED IT ONCE) and show the United States of America that you’re not completely corrupt. Doubling down on a stupid mistake that has ruined lives and prevented justice is not the answer to gaining the trust of the public back.

  • Maggie Zamanian

    This is just too unbelievable. If someone told me this story, I would not believe it could be true. These people MUST be held accountable and Kerry Cook MUST be declared actually INNOCENT. How can this continue?? Thank you so much Texas Monthly for exposing this corruption & the trauma that one person has suffered because of the corruption. My heart breaks over & over for Kerry Cook and his family and Linda Edwards and her family, knowing her killer has been free all these years. Disgusting.

  • Maggie Zamanian

    How is he still not declared actually innocent??? How can the Innocence Project not care that prosecutors, judges, juries put innocent people in jail without evidence, even after it has been proven that they are innocent?? Seems the Innocence Project is doing half the job.

  • Cara Jurkowski

    As the mother of a seven-year-old son, I dread having “the talk.”

    Oh, no, not the birds and the bees– I’d rather awkwardly euphemize my way through THAT minefield any day compared to the day I tell him our justice system is broken, broken, broken.

    That the police officers he’s idolized since the day he first spied a shiny badge are simply people; people who can be every bit as evil as those they lock up and sometimes more so. Much more so. That there are prosecutors who routinely lock up the innocent and judges turn a blind eye to behavior that would make any miscreant squirm.

    But I also want my son to know that we who are lucky enough to live our lives on the outside have an obligation to help those who aren’t. On that same dark day, I will also hand him a copy of Kerry Max Cook’s book — not just to drive my point home– but so he knows there ARE good people out there fighting that system, fighting for truth and justice and — yes — the American way of life.

    I want him to know that Kerry Max Cook isn’t just an unfortunate who had his life snatched away only to be abused and ruined by a corrupt system that is to this DAY falsely imprisoning the innocent (#freeedates). He is a man who learned how important a simple WORD can be. Kerry has been willing to spend his life fighting to change that one word to INNOCENT; actual innocence. I will tell him how he fought and fought and just as he spied his brass ring, he also saw his own attorney having to kowtow to a prosecutor who at the very least is complicit in turning a blind eye to the injustices of the past.

    Can you imagine having to make that decision? How many of us would have the courage to do what Kerry Max Cook did? To slap the brass ring away and say NO. I will not take your “actual innocence”– not when it means letting injustice go unanswered.

    If the world worked the way it should, and scientists and peacemakers were idolized more than NBA players, there would be Kerry Max Cook action figures and lunch boxes, because he is more of a superhero than all the Bat and Spidermen in the world. But the world doesn’t work that way, and it will be a few more years until I talk to my son about this act of strength and justice.

    But when I do, there is no doubt of the two words I will use for Kerry Max Cooke. The first is, “innocent.” The second? Hero.

    • I regret my emotional rants last year but had I not been so distraught by the way IPOT and IPNY were mistreating me and my case, I would have better articulated the issue: they take Way your olive and put you in the truck of the car as a non-influencing entity. I was not allowed to tell them no. And when I did, I was ignored. They only communicated with one another. Then they called to inform me of their decision. The rights of a client are ignored. THAT was one of my biggest issues with them. IPOT and Gary used my case to tell prosecutors across Texas they are willing to negotiate and outlook police and prosecutorial wrong doing for a deal to make them appear as they won when the client loses. .

      • Cara Jurkowski

        I don’t know if you’ve ever read the graphic novel (or seen the movie) V for Vendetta, but there is a sequence that I think summarizes your position beautifully. The heroine, Eve, has been captured and imprisoned, brutalized– had every last shred of her life taken away because of her refusal to name names (essentially confess). And as she is about to be taken out and shot, she is given a last chance to sign a confession and she realizes that refusing to cooperate with villains, staying her ground on this one “last inch” of her that they CAN’T TAKE– it was where she knew her true self– her integrity– what she couldn’t be forced to give up:

        “I shall die here. Every last inch of me shall perish. Except one. An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world worth having. we must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.” – Alan Moore, V for Vendetta (Valerie)
        I see your situation in the same way. I see you as sitting there, being told that you will get everything you want– if you just give up your integrity– your truth– your need for justice– your innocence. And you simply. Won’t. Do. It.

        That’s what makes you a hero. You are still fighting. I’ll say it every time. That kind of integrity against a corrupt system (and we all know it is) is your “last inch” and it is not for ANYONE to give away –Not the Innocence project, Bob Ruff, ANYONE but you. And you’re keeping it.

        • You understand me so clearly. It was never a V for Vendetta, but a J for justice for me. What most people don’t realize, I lost my entire family while I’m death row. Do you notice you don’t see a single post from a family member? It’s because I don’t have any, not any I can see or feel, anyway. My friends are my family.

          With that kinda collateral cost to a wrongful conviction – -an all consuming one – – all I have left is Sandy, K. J. and the truth. Everything else was stripped from me by Smith County’s 40 years of lies and corruption.

          I will take this fight to the grave.

  • Monikka Best

    Kerry Max Cook deserves to be found COMPLETELY INNOCENT! Not exonerated. Make this right!

    • Thank you. 40 years of fighting is criminal to end up with anything but. Gary Udashen of IPOT exonerated Matt Bingham and 40 years of Smith County misconduct and let me having to hope the CCA will see the truth and find me “Actually Innocent.”

  • Krista Mendez

    Kerry, I read Ms. Cara’s letter that you posted, and I can’t imagine that I could’ve ever worded my exact thoughts more eloquently. Her letter embodied almost everything I felt the day that Bob Ruff announced your decision to fire your attorneys. Hearing his reaction & those of others wondering if you made a mistake made sense to me but absolutely no sense to me at the same time. I have always admired you for your will to fight, but I have never admired you more than that moment. In my eyes, your battle has not ever been about pride but about truth and integrity. Integrity is defined in two ways: 1. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness; and 2. the state of being whole and undivided. It seems that a person cannot have one without the other, and you sir are the epitome of integrity defined. This whole uphill battle has not been about being “free”. It has been about being Innocent and being truly FREE, without the power and control of Smith county always looming overhead. No one need understand your choices but you. All we as your supporters need to do is respect them. Please don’t ever stop fighting for your actual innocence, no matter how heavy the burden may feel some days or how weary the heart may grow. You are an inspiration to me, and I, like Ms. Cara, will tell my children about you when they are old enough to understand. When they ask the meaning of persistence and integrity, I will tell them to look up Kerry Max Cook.
    -With Love from TX

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to read the story and comment. Every time I read something like this and see thst there are those out there that see who I really am and why so really lost it over what the lawyers were doing to my case pretending publicly as if the deal they crafted with passed &, present Smith County prosecutord against my will was the same as actual Innocence when in fact it isn’t even close – – and NOT what I was fighting them for.

      Thank you so much. This and former CCA Judge Cathy Cochran’s words are quiet vindication for the price I am paying for standing up to the Innocence Project of Texas & New York.

  • Carolina Garcia

    I have been inspired by this 40 years of refusal to give up and not settle for anything but Actual Innocence.
    He is an amazing example of what resilience looks like. Keep fighting Kerry!

  • Bob Balaban

    I’ve known Kerry Max Cook and his loving wife and child for the last sixteen years. He is a decent, honorable and honest soul. If anyone has ever deserved to be declared actually innocent it’s Kerry.

    I have read every page of his trial transcripts and reviewed every piece of evidence on his record. I looked hard. And I could find nothing in any of the documentation to contradict that point of view.

    In 1996 The Texas Court of Criminal appeals concurred. They overturned Kerry’s conviction saying that “prosecutorial and police misconduct has tainted this entire matter from the outset.”

    Kerry endured brutal rape and torture for twenty years. Continuously fighting all the while to be declared innocent.

    He was finally released after extensive DNA evidence at the crime scene revealed not one piece of Kerry’s.

    And yet he continues to live his life under the continual stigma of a brutal rape/murder conviction. The campaign of lies used successfully by the prosecution to convict him in 1978 lives on to this day.

    Kerry has struggled to be declared innocent for nearly forty years. He was offered his release from death row several times if he would only confess to committing a murder he didn’t commit. He steadfastly refused every time. Risking death to protect and preserve his innocence.

    Nothing will ever replace those lost years. But clearing Kerry’s name would be a good start to helping him reclaim his life.

    I respectfully beg the court to seriously consider his plea for actual innocence. I believe you’ll be making a tragic mistake if you don’t.

    – Bob Balaban

  • 1whenwereyouplanningtotellme2

    The play Exonerated is made entirely of 1st person testimony by a number of men and women who share the experience of being accused and punished for crimes they didn’t commit. Every night for 6 months I read his testimony to a theater filled with people who were appalled and became mute with tears when they heard Kerry’s story. I met Kerry during the run; it was hard for me to find the boy who’d been raped repeatedly as ‘crowd control’ under the supervision of guards when I looked into Kerry’s eyes, because he was merry, and warm, and had a naturally polite, southern social way about him. Not all the time, but the true horror he’d endured had not whipped him. In all honesty I don’t know if I have a tenth of the grit and fortitude he has.
    He is Innocent in so many ways. His time, his own sweet time on this earth was taken away when he a child and he was never allowed it, not yet, by other people, many still living and free and able to forget Kerry or refuse him so they can look into their mirrors every morning.
    There is a God or not, who cares for justice or doesn’t, I don’t know. I do know that there is Kerry Cook, still alive and asking for something he so deserves, and I hope he causes sleepless nights and unendurable anguish in the living minds of those who did this, and go on doing this to Kerry, and so many others. . I hope he is in every mirrored reflection they glance at, hoping to see on their own faces some relief from their memories, make him stop. May he never stop until he gets the justice he requires.
    The #CCA has Kerry’s good name before them. They could do what would make them actually be and be seen as honorable people when they deliberate Kerry’s name.
    I know how Kerry feels, at least I have an actor’s perception of how he feels. And I know how those who so knowingly tortured him feel, know they feel it now, numb underneath them until it bubbles up and they have to excuse themselves and find a place where they can shriek their guilt.
    Everyday someone reads Kerry’s story, and joins us who stand with him as he waits for justice. And just think, how many people, with children and parents, how many people look at the facts of this unspeakable case and decide in the clear light of day to join those who have raped and murdered this innocent man over and over, and kept his good name from him for malice’ sake. I am small-minded enough to know I could never forgive them, never.
    May those who have the power see their way to do what is simple and appropriate and right, and end this shameful thing.
    May the #CCA save us all.
    Richard Dreyfuss

  • Oliver Diaz

    I am a retired Supreme Court Justice from the state of Mississippi. I have closely followed the case of Kerry Cook over the past few years. I have examined the facts of this case and can confidently say that he should never have been convicted based upon the evidence in the case. An innocent man has suffered for far too long. I have never seen a case like this in my 15 years on the bench. Kerry Cook has endured more than anyone should ever have to endure. Kerry should be found “actually innocent” and put an end to this travesty of justice. As long as this injustice continues, people will no be able to have faith in the Texas justice system. The Texas courts should do what is right and end the injustice.

    Oliver Diaz
    Mississippi Supreme Court Justice

  • Jill Duncan Kahl

    I had the honor of hearing Kerry Cook speak at the Realty One Group Summit this morning. I was moved, deeply and am in disbelief that he has not been fully exonerated. I ask everyone to join in asking the Texas Court of Criminal
    Appeals to grant Actual Innocence. Let’s help Kerry get the innocence he deserves.
    Thank you Kerry for sharing your story of Courage in an effort to make your DREAMS come true. You are an inspiration of hope for me. Thank you.
    Jill Duncan-Kahl
    [email protected]
    One Home Warranty