Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Kerry Max Cook event at USF a success

This posting is somewhat overdue, since the Kerry Max Cook event was on October 2, but hopefully it is better late than never. Mr. Cook came to USF to give a presentation, and the event was co-sponsored by the American Constitution Society and the Criminal Law Society. Prof. Richard Leo was also prominently involved in enabling Mr. Cook to attend, and the Sociology department and the Leo McCarthy Center (on the undergrad campus) were very generous in providing funding for the event. In all, it seemed about 70-80 people attended (room 100 was pretty full), and I'd say 70-80 people in attendance is enough to label the event a success! Pictures can be found here, for those who are interested.

For those who were unable to attend, but are interested in Mr. Cook's story, here's the deal: Cook was arrested in 1977 for the rape and murder of a 21 year old woman he had met once, briefly, at an apartment complex pool. Cook was also 21 at the time of the murder, and was arrested based on a single fingerprint found in the victim's apartment. In total, over a dozen unique fingerprints were found in the apartment, but only one set showed a match in the law enforcement database--Cook's (Cook had a record as a minor for car theft and other joy-riding related offenses). A bloody fingerprint was also found in the apartment. That print did not match Cook's, but it did not lead to the arrest of any other suspects.

At trial, Cook was convicted based on this fingerprint (and a police investigator's assertion that he could determine the finger print was left at the time of death--however, "time stamping" a finger print is impossible); the testimony of the victim's roommate, who identified, at trial, Cook as the killer, despite initially identifying the victim's ex-boyfriend, and describing the killer as having gray hair, cut around the ears (Cook, at the time, had long brown hair, as seen in this picture--the witness explained this contradiction by claiming her memory had improved in the year before trial, despite research showing that memory is best in the immediate aftermath of an event, and does not improve overtime); the testimony of a friend who claimed to have been with Cook the night of the murder (on appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declared this testimony prejudicial and contradictory--as another prosecution witness placed Cook in a different place at the same time--and ruled the testimony could not be read on appeal because, as a result of the testimony, Cook's conviction was obtained through fraud and in violation of the law); and the testimony of a jailhouse snitch, Edward "Shyster" Jackson, who claimed Cook had confessed to him while the two were serving time together, though prison records would later show Jackson and Cook were not housed together at the time Jackson claimed Cook confessed (Jackson later admitted he fabricated the confession in order to gain his release from prison--at the time, Jackson was serving a sentence for murder, and, after gaining release in exchange for his testimony, was arrested and convicted of two other murders).

All told, Cook was tried three times, resulting in two convictions and one hung jury. He spent 22 years in prison and 13 on Death Row--in conditions so horrendous, Texas' Death Row was later declared to violate cruel and unusual punishment. Before Cook's fourth trial, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled the prosecution could not use the prejudicial and contradictory testimony of Cook's friend. The Court's opinion also harshly criticized the conduct of the police and the prosecution, saying the investigation was intentionally misleading.

Without this prejudicial testimony, the prosecution could not place Cook near the scene of the crime at or near the time of death. Rather than dismiss the case (or try the case without the prejudicial testimony, running the "substantial risk that without the testimony . . . [Cook] would walk the streets free from this," as the prosecutor said), the prosecution offered Cook a plea to time served. Cook ultimately plead "no contest" in exchange for a sentence of time served.

Two months after Cook's plea, DNA test results of a semen stain on the victim's panties returned, showing the DNA did not match Cook's. Instead, the DNA matched the victim's ex-boyfriend--the person whom the victim's roommate initially identified as the murderer. According to the prosecution, this finding was not exculpatory. The deputy assigned to the case in advance of Cooks' fourth trial would, after the results of the DNA analysis were revealed, describe the prosecution's goal as "to ensure [Cook] got a conviction for murder that would follow him the rest of his life." This would be the same conviction the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals described as obtained through fraud and in violation of the law.

Due to his plea, Cook remains a convicted murderer under Texas law. His story has been featured in a PBS documentary, in a play entitled "The Exonerated," and in Cook's book "Chasing Justice." Cook was also called the most persecuted man in America by the Houston Chronicle. 

1 comment:

Chasing Justice said...

I was so glad to present my story to the law students at this event.

I especially enjoyed the sight-seeing events two of the students took on before I had to go back to the airport.

With law students such as yourselves, the future of American law looks brighter than ever. Thank you all....especially my friend, Richard Leo.