Kerry Max Cook - Justice Reclaimed
Feb. 18, 2007
Justice reclaimed-----After decades on death row, Kerry Cook had to learn
how to live again.
Beginning in the summer of 1977, when Linda Jo Edwards was found raped,
murdered and mutilated in her Tyler apartment, Smith County fought hard to
kill Kerry Max Cook for the deed.
Tried, convicted, sentenced to die and sent to the Ellis Unit in
Huntsville, Cook was raped shortly after his arrival and made a sexual
slave, a commodity to be traded like cigarettes in the death house
economy. Over more than 2 decades he endured 3 trials, appeals that raised
his hopes and dashed them again, brutal assaults and suicide attempts, the
last of which, in August 1991, included nearly severing his penis. He
dipped a finger in his own blood to scrawl a final message on the wall of
his cell: "I was an innocent man." The organ was reattached and Cook
Over and over, his lawyers argued that Cook had gotten a raw deal,
railroaded to death row by prosecutors and police. Finally, the appeals
court agreed with them and ordered a new trial, his fourth. At the 11th
hour, prosecutors offered a deal, and Cook walked out of the Bastrop
County Courthouse a free man.
That was 8 years ago. But to borrow from Faulkner, the past is never in
the past for Kerry Max Cook.
His case has become a rallying cry for criminal justice reform advocates
and death penalty opponents. Where once his companions were the scum of
humanity, he now hobnobs with Ben Stiller, Bruce Springsteen and Susan
Sarandon. His tale is one of those told in the hit play "The Exonerated."
He has a book coming out Feb. 27, "Chasing Justice: My Story of Freeing
Myself After Two Decades on Death Row for a Crime I Didn't Commit" and a
Web site, chasingjustice.com.
These days, Cook lives with his wife, Sandra Pressey, and their 6-year-old
son, Kerry Justice Cook, in a Plano apartment complex overlooking a golf
course. They have a big-screen JVC TV, a Macintosh computer with a Scooby
Doo mouse pad and a couple of frenetic Jack Russell terriers.
Solidly built and square-jawed, he paces in his living room and talks
fast, like a man who's been struggling for a long time to be heard.
He says, "I think my case is as Kafkaesque as it could ever get in
America. A man was railroaded here."
Says Tyler attorney David Dobbs, who prosecuted him and is now in private
practice: "It's such a joke that we promote and support people such as
Kerry Max Cook in our world. . . . It has nothing to do with justice; it's
all about publicity and targeting weak cases from the past that are
Says Paul Nugent, Cook's attorney: "Kerry's case is the most egregious
prosecutorial misconduct ever documented in Texas. . . . It is shocking.
Prosecutorial misconduct is easy to allege but it's hard to prove. We
However you view it, the case has no shortage of tragedy. Linda Jo
Edwards, her life cut short at 21. Kerry Max Cook, sentenced to death at
21 and locked up for most of his adult life for allegedly killing his
neighbor and acquaintance.
And Cook will forever be defined by this dark history. It's the only story
A life on death row
"This has been my entire life," says Cook, now 49. "I remember more of
death row than I do my entire childhood."
"When you go to prison, you're thrown into a lion's pit," he says. "There
is absolutely no help from the guards. None. You're there to die. It's
every man for himself. It was a killing field."
Fights were routine. A friend got stabbed to death with a chicken bone to
the heart. They didn't call it Gladiator School for nothing.
He was first raped within weeks of arriving, and had a vulgar expression
carved on his buttocks.
"There was only one way to escape: Stab and preferably kill the person
who punked you out," Cook writes. ". . . The moment another person even
uses the term 'punk' toward you or questions your manhood, the bizarre
world of prison justice takes over you either must attempt to kill him or
live as a sexual slave according to the whims of dark and tested men. The
point is to demonstrate to the prison hierarchy that you are prepared to
keep your respect at all costs."
Banking that his appeal would succeed and soon Cook chose not to fight
and risk killing somebody, and facing another murder charge.
So Kerry Cook was punked out.
"I couldn't afford to stand up for myself," he says as his wife and son
toss a ball around outside. "Even when I was getting raped."
Cook believed he had reasons to hope his conviction would be reversed. At
trial, Edwards' roommate, Paula Rudolph, had repeated what she had told
police that the man she saw in the apartment appeared to have white or
silver hair. Cook's hair was brown. A Tyler police sergeant had improperly
testified that fingerprints of Cook's the one piece of physical evidence
linking him to the crime scene were between 6 and 12 hours old, when
experts say there is no scientific method for dating latent fingerprints.
And there was at least one other suspect police should have seriously
considered: James Mayfield, an older married man with whom Edwards had
recently ended an affair.
That wasn't all. Early in his prison stay, The Dallas Morning News broke
the story that a fellow inmate, Edward Scott Jackson, had lied when he
testified against Cook at his trial and had been coached by the district
attorney's office and that a murder charge pending against Jackson was
later reduced to involuntary manslaughter.
Meanwhile, Cook's brief with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals sat with
no action for 8 years.
An unprecedented plea
"The lies kept me going. This is a case that was manipulated from the
start. First, there was a vicious rape and murder. Second, I was charged
for it. Those are the only facts."
Kerry Cook is sitting in a booth at the Cheesecake Factory. He unscrews
the top to the pepper shaker and pours spice on his Thai food; years of
bland prison gruel have made him crave intense flavors.
In December 1987, the court finally ruled in his case, affirming Cook's
conviction. 11 days before his execution date, the U.S. Supreme Court sent
his case back to the Texas appeals court.
The turning point came when Cook wrote to Centurion Ministries of
Princeton, N.J., which seeks to reverse wrongful convictions by finding
new evidence. After collecting more than 50 interviews with associates of
James Mayfield, Linda Jo Edwards' onetime lover, the group issued a report
titled, "Why Centurion Ministries Believes Jim Mayfield Killed Linda Jo
After a re-hearing before the Criminal Court of Appeals, Cook's conviction
was reversed. A 2nd trial in 1992 ended in a hung jury.
At a third trial, in Georgetown in 1994, Cook was again convicted and
sentenced to death.
But in 1996, after attorney Paul Nugent wrote a 213-page appellate brief,
the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Cook's conviction in blunt
terms: "Prosecutorial and police misconduct has tainted this entire matter
from the outset. Little confidence can be placed in the outcome of the
appellant's 1st 2 trials as a result."
Jim McCloskey, Centurion's founder who investigated Cook's case, is even
"This is the rankest prosecutorial misconduct I've ever seen or ever hope
to see for the rest of my life," McCloskey says. This is as bad as it
gets. It was dastardly."
After a November 1997 hearing, Cook was released on an appeal bond.
In 1999, as lawyers prepared for a 4th trial in Bastrop, lab technicians
detected semen on the panties Linda Jo Edwards was wearing the night she
was murdered. It was James Mayfield's, not Cook's.
Meanwhile, the Smith County district attorney's office tried to negotiate
a guilty plea, giving Cook credit for time served. He refused, saying he'd
rather risk being convicted and executed. Minutes before his Bastrop
trial, the prosecution and defense finally made a deal: Cook would plead
no contest (legally, neither admitting guilt nor disputing the charges)
and leave prison.
It was an extraordinary event no-contest pleas are usually for lesser
offenses, not murder cases, and such a plea typically implies guilt. But
Cook specifically rejected any language that carried that implication.
"The no contest plea was historic no lawyer could recall a Texas judge,
or anywhere for that matter, ever accepting such a plea in a capital
murder case and allowing a defendant to maintain his innocence and walk
free," Cook writes. "After a 21-year struggle, my case was over in less
than 10 minutes."
Living in the world
"There's no getting around the fact that it was a difficult case, and that
in the earlier trials he was not treated like he should have been," says
Dobbs, the former prosecutor. "There's no question that's true. You have
to look at the legal context in '78. Things were done differently then. It
doesn't make them right. But at the end of the day, we made the decision
we had to make and we've moved on from it."
Moving on hasn't been that simple for Cook. His family was mostly gone.
His only brother was murdered in a bar fight while Cook was in prison; his
father died while he was in, and his mother in 2005.
He has had to re-learn life on the outside, including learning to drive
all over again. Once at a gas station, a woman almost called the police on
him when he asked for help locating the gas tank on his car.
Sandra Pressey: "I remember the 1st time I met him at the Amnesty
International meeting, he had trouble making eye contact and I thought he
was profoundly shy. But then we went out to grab a bite to eat and he
wouldn't even pick up the menu. He was never allowed to make any choices,
so given this freedom of making a choice was terrifying. He would panic.
"He's directionally illiterate. North, south, east, west it was just this
past year he got the concept. Because as you navigate through life you
make choices, but he was never allowed."
Kerry Cook, execution number 600, is gregarious, funny and has a voracious
appetite for knowledge: Pressey once gave him a week's worth of computer
tutorial videotapes, which he ran through in a day. He is also profoundly
lonely and lacks the social filters people take for granted.
One day he told Pressey about a phone call from a woman named Maria: "She
was asking about aluminum siding. She was so nice. We talked and talked.
She said it snows where she's at. She said she's going to send me
Pressey concludes the story: "A couple days later, he got a letter and it
was from Minnesota or something. There's a picture of Maria, her daughter,
the snow. He would get himself in these situations because he loves
people. He was this odd mix of Rain Man, Forrest Gump and 'The Other
Sister' the Juliette Lewis character.
"He's very childlike. That's one of the reasons he and K.J. have that
special bond. Kerry is like another kid to him."
K.J. is every bit as outgoing as his father, sometimes telling strangers,
"My daddy was on death row for 20 years." The strangers' reaction often is
to remark on the boy's vivid imagination.
Cook, meanwhile, continues to show up on the anti-death penalty circuit.
He's spoken at Princeton and Yale and has appeared on "Nightline,"
"Frontline" and "The Today Show." (Once on Phil Donahue's program to talk
about "The Exonerated," in which Richard Dreyfuss played Cook, Cook joked,
"The last time I saw this guy, he was being eaten by a shark.") He also
speaks to young people about overcoming adversity but has a hard time
making a steady living.
Then there is his book, a horrific and well-written memoir that forced
Cook to relive experiences that might be better forgotten if they could
be. It's gotten good advance reviews and has been kindly blurbed by
Harvard Law School's Alan Dershowitz, former FBI director William Sessions
"I always said I'd write a book but nobody believed me," Cook says. "They
thought I'd be executed."
"The Kerry Cook who came out who was good at putting words together but
was scared to death has been replaced by a man who's even better at
putting words together, and he's gotten more sureness about how to live in
the world," says Kate Germond, Centurion Ministries' assistant director
and K.J.'s godmother. "But it's still hard. You don't exorcise the
betrayal these guys have endured."
Pressey: "If you just read the newspapers, you would think he was this
derelict, crazed, maniacal killer. When Kerry meets people, he's wondering
what they've heard about him, and he wants them to know, 'This is me.'
That's the intensity. He wants to be understood."
His past is always with him, whether applying for a job or getting stopped
by a traffic cop in Lancaster on the way home from lobbying the
Legislature. Cook wishes for a gubernatorial pardon, but that would
require the assent of Smith County authorities, which isn't likely to
happen. Barring that, he'd like to see the law changed to allow for
pardons in extraordinary cases such as his, pardons that could bypass
local authorities before going to the governor's office.
"He should not settle for this scarlet letter," Pressey says. "I'm glad
that he's finally demanding that. At first it was enough that he could
maintain his innocence. Now the freedom isn't really freedom. He's
convicted but innocent."
Cook says in many respects, it's not about him any more, it's about when
K.J. gets old enough for people to start asking questions, asking whether
his father is a vicious killer.
"Suffice to say the birth of K.J. was preordained and a miracle," he says.
"I'm everything to him. And if I'm everything to him, that's everything to
(source: Austin AMerican-Statesman)