Kerry Max Cook has been engaged in a 40-year struggle to clear his name of a brutal 1977 murder in Tyler. After Cook was released from death row on bond in 1997, his dramatic story—which we detailed in our April issue—became part of a popular play called The Exonerated, in which he was eventually played by many actors, including Tim Robbins, Peter Gallagher, Aidann Quinn, and Richard Dreyfuss. The role particularly stuck with Dreyfuss, the Oscar-winning star of American Graffiti, Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and he talked to us about why Cook’s story is still so compelling after all these years.
Mike Hall: Do you remember when you first heard Kerry Max Cook’s story?
Richard Dreyfuss: It was in 2002 when director Bob Balaban called me about doing The Exonerated. I read the play and was appalled and said I would do it.
MH: What was it that appalled you?
RD: It’s obvious that here was a guy, Kerry, who seemed to be innocent and then underwent the most extraordinary, hideous everyday experience of punishment by all. It was like an Alexandre Dumas novel that he had to write by the reflection of a broken glass with the stub of a pencil because he was on suicide watch. And it took him so long to find a lawyer who would help him and it took so long to actually get the help and it took so long to get out and it took so long to understand the difference between getting out and getting exonerated. I thought that what he did was heroic—truly heroic.
MH: What was it about his character that attracted you?
RD: He was innocent—he was a child-like person, which made all the things that happened to him all the more terrible. He still is that child-like person, when he allows himself to be.
MH: A lot of guys on death row were tough guys before getting there—Kerry wasn’t a hardened criminal.
RD: No. He stayed that way throughout his incarceration. One thing he said to me I’ll never forget: When he left the prison, none of the guards said goodbye.
MH: Why do you think they wouldn’t say goodbye?
RD: Because they’d compartmentalized him—not only as a killer, but as a victim—a rapee. If they’d said goodbye, it would have meant he was human enough to perhaps be valued and right. Maybe he was right—they couldn’t afford to say that themselves. We as a country think when a person is incarcerated, he’s guilty. When he’s found guilty, he’s guilty, therefore he should be punished—not just by imprisonment but by daily punishment. I’ve never understood where that came from—some Puritanical insanity that doesn’t allow for rehabilitation or empathy.
MH: A lot of great actors have played Kerry onstage—you, Aidan Quinn, Tim Robbins, Peter Gallagher—what do you think it is that attracts actors to a part like this?
RD: It’s a great role, a great story. Then you realize that it’s true. Every night after the show I’d say to the audience at the end, “If any of you feel the death penalty is a good thing for society, and then you found out afterward that you’d made a mistake and the person you’d killed had been innocent of the crime, what would you be willing to do? To make an apology? To carry the financial burden for his children? What would you be willing to do if you killed the wrong man believing it was the right thing to do?” No one ever raised their hand. No one.
It’s not the fact that the death penalty is cruel and unusual in its imposition. The death penalty is cruel and unusual because it’s final. No system created by the mind of man is perfect. To impose the death penalty means we have perfected the ability to know guilt and innocence—and we’ve done no such thing. It’s a lie we tell ourselves. I think prosecutors who fudge evidence, don’t deliver evidence, hide evidence, knowingly distort a case for a promotion, should be arrested and sent to prison. We have the strangest sense of forgiveness for the truly guilty and no sense of forgiveness for the poor and the people who fall between the cracks.
MH: One of the problems that people in the Smith County law enforcement community have with Cook is that he was, in fact, not actually exonerated when that play was written and being performed. Did that ever bother you?
RD: It doesn’t give me pause at all. It’s a technicality the people up in that county in the judicial system bring up. He did the right thing [by taking a 1999 no-contest plea bargain to stay out of prison] and did it when he could. And he didn’t participate in any uprisings or violent acts against the state while he was incarcerated. He endured the unendurable—and got out. The rest of it is cheap talk by people who weren’t in his shoes.
MH: Did you hear about the hearing this summer in which he was exonerated? Afterword, Cook felt betrayed by the deal his lawyers had made and fired them. He thinks that, because this deal prevented his prosecutors from actually being questioned in court, they will never be held accountable for what they did. What do you think about this?
RD: I’m in Kerry’s corner. I’m glad he took the action he did and I know how his lawyers must feel—they worked so hard for him and he let them go. But it’s his life and his name. He’s right to keep fighting. He has the right to be enormously, ruthlessly angry every morning he wakes up. The fact that he is not is a testament to his character. And I hope he doesn’t feel alone, because he’s not.
MH: Kerry is 60 now and this case has dominated his life for 40 years. What do you hope for him?
RD: I hope he finds some peace. Inner serenity. It’s interesting, we can say now that 40 years of his life have been dedicated to this, 40 years of his experience of life was this hell. But tomorrow he could find something like strumming guitars or singing or carpentry that he loves to do. And it’ll all be an anecdote, a memory. I wish him the ability to find a passion for himself that has nothing to do with his past, something he loves to do.