The Tyler newspaper published a story this morning about Kerry Max Cook and the two motions he filed in a local district court on Tuesday (I wrote about this yesterday). The story was mostly skeptical about Cook’s filings, drawing primarily on one source, one of the men who prosecuted him.
But the paper left a few things out.
Let’s start with the headline of the story, which says “Murderer Wants DNA Testing 35 Years After Conviction.” It’s this very assumption of guilt—calling him a “murderer”—that led Cook to file his motions. The paper is calling Cook a murderer because he did not plead “not guilty” in 1999 and because he has never been officially exonerated. The story doesn’t tell you that on the eve of the fourth time the Smith County DA was going to take Cook to trial, it made him a plea deal—he could walk away if he pled no-contest to the murder, without admitting any guilt whatsoever. Now, if the DA honestly thought Cook was a sadistic rapist and killer, would it really have let him walk away? The modifier “Convicted” would have helped that headline immeasurably.
The most revealing fact that the paper failed to mention? The victim’s underwear had semen on it that didn’t belong to Cook. Unfortunately for him, during the time period the semen was being tested back in February 1999, the DA made the above-mentioned plea deal with Cook, one the prosecutor told him was a final offer before a fourth trial. Cook took the deal because he was terrified of being found guilty again and getting another death sentence, a very real possibility given that it had already happened twice before.
Two months later, the results came back: the semen was not his. It belonged to Edwards’ ex-boyfriend, a married man named James Mayfield, with whom she had been having an affair. The affair had ended badly three weeks before. According to one witness, a professor friend of Edwards who testified at Cook’s third trial and who had visited Edwards the night before her body was found, “she said she was going to date other men, that she had told Jim Mayfield that and he was very upset.” But the Telegraph’s story doesn’t mention the name Mayfield at all—or offer any explanations from the DA’s office on why Mayfield has never been pursued as a suspect in his ex-girlfriend’s murder.
The story also doesn’t mention that Edwards’ roommate originally told police she had seen a man at the apartment the night Edwards was killed and that she assumed it was Mayfield. It was only at the trial that she testified it was Cook.
Let’s see, what else? The story refers to the guilty verdict in the third trial being overturned because of the testimony of a “witness who…said he had an encounter with Cook the night of the murder.” The man, Robert Hoehn, indeed testified that he had had sex with Cook in his apartment and that they had watched a movie that featured a cat torture scene. The prosecution’s theory was that Cook, aroused by the scene, had then raped, killed, and mutilated Edwards. But Hoehn’s credibility was completely shot when it was revealed that in front of the grand jury he had said the two men had not had sex—and that in fact Cook had ignored the movie altogether. Hoehn, as unreliable a narrator as you could find, was the state’s main witness.
The Telegraph story also doesn’t mention that there was no physical evidence against Cook except for his fingerprints on her patio door. How did they get there, the state wanted to know? This would have been fairly easy to explain. Cook lived in the same apartment complex where Edwards lived and where she was killed. One of Cook’s biggest mistakes was not revealing that he had met Edwards a few days before her murder out by the pool, and that she had invited him back to her apartment, where the two had made out on the couch.
Cook didn’t reveal this until years later, and he says he waited so long because he was terrified that the prosecution would use this information to make him appear guilty. (He also says that, while he awaited trial, his father urged him never to say anything about it, for that exact reason.) And in fact the state withheld evidence that indeed Cook and Edwards did know each other—that a few days before the murder he had told another witness that he and she had gone to her apartment and made out. Thus, there was a logical reason for Cook’s fingerprints being found on her patio door.
The Telegraph’s story quotes former assistant DA David Dobbs questioning the timing of Cook’s filings, fifteen years after he was released from prison. Let’s let Tyler native Scott Henson, of the noted criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast, consider this issue:
Bizarrely, prosecutors from my home town say they’re puzzled why Cook would seek formal exoneration so many years after he was sprung from death row. Just for starters, I’d say it’s because Jack Skeen and David Dobbs smeared him six ways from Sunday over the course of two decades while ignoring the man who DNA evidence and an investigation by the indefatigable Centurion Ministries say is likely the real killer. More immediately, Texas recently increased compensation for men exactly in Cook’s position who were victimized by false convictions. And during the 2011 session, the Texas Legislature amended the post-conviction DNA testing statute to eliminate most grounds for prosecutors to object to testing. So it makes perfect sense to me why this is happening now.
Finally, the Morning Telegraph story notes that “Dobbs … said that for all of the stories told by Cook, people need to know that Cook was a convicted felon and a fugitive at the time of Ms. Edwards’ death and that on a previous occasion escaped from the Rusk State Hospital by jumping out of a window.” Cook’s record does show convictions for larceny, malicious mischief, burglary, and car theft prior to the time of the Edwards murder. Cook had even done time, but not for anything violent. And he was indeed in Port Arthur when he was arrested, but he swears he wasn’t on probation. And Cook acknowledges three stints at Rusk, during which, he swears, he never jumped out of a window. (Though he says he once walked away with a girl who had come to pick him up.) But even if any of this was true, how do they make Cook a vicious sex killer?
Cook made two huge mistakes: first, he should have confessed that he had been in the apartment a few days before the murder, and second, he should have rejected the plea deal. Can any of us, who were facing a return to death row—where Cook says he was raped and brutalized for years—say that we would not also consider a plea deal? These were the mistakes of a terrified human being, not a killer. And at this point in Cook’s life, it would be another mistake, maybe the worst of all, if he didn’t try to clear his name, by whatever means necessary.