March 4, 2007
Wrongly convicted man writes of justice reclaimed
By STEVE WEINBERG, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Some miscarriages of justice never fail to shock, no matter how many times
the saga is repeated. The wrongful conviction of Kerry Max Cook in a Tyler
rape/murder 30 years ago still shocks. And Cook's personal account of his
case, Chasing Justice: My Story of Freeing Myself After Two Decades on Death
Row for a Crime I Didn't Commit, is more shocking than all the news coverage
combined. That's because the saga is not concentrated in a newspaper article
or a magazine story. Instead, it grinds on for more than 300 pages, as
police detectives, sheriff's deputies, prosecutors, judges, jurors, prison
guards and fellow inmates either misperceive the evidence or manufacture it.
It is unusual for a wrongfully convicted person to write a book about his or
her case -- not even a handful of such volumes exist. Cook was just 20 when
he was arrested in 1977; he was not well-schooled and was in many ways
naive, despite a street life that included a nonviolent criminal record. He
is not a smooth writer. Still, the book is clear. The degradation he
suffered is so depressing that it is difficult for even a professional
writer like me to find the appropriate descriptive words.
Wrongful convictions are more common than most laypeople realize. Much of my
time as an investigative reporter is spent studying them. The Cook case is
legendary because it dragged on so long, because he came close to being
executed by the state, because the misbehavior of police and prosecutors was
so egregious, because none of them suffered punishment for their wrongdoing
and because as the true nature of the case became clear, the more likely
suspect (named by Cook) escaped arrest. (The person in question was a highly
educated married man who was the victim's workplace supervisor and lover.)
Wrongful convictions yield many tragedies. One of those is obvious yet
overlooked: The real perpetrator is free to enjoy life, perhaps to strike
again. Yet in case after case around Texas and around the nation, police and
prosecutors' faulty arrest logic too often allows the real perpetrators to
remain free. It certainly made no sense from the opening of the rape/murder
investigation to arrest Cook. The only explanation for the mistake in this
case was the overwhelming desire of police and prosecutors to impress their
constituencies with a quick collar.
Cook says he had a casual sexual encounter with the victim, Linda Jo
Edwards, the same week she was found murdered at the apartment complex where
they both lived. For years, he withheld information about that encounter
from the authorities, a decision that hurt his situation and branded him as
a liar. In the book, Cook confesses his lie and explains it more or less
adequately. The voluminous police, prosecutor and court records back up the
truth of the rest of his saga.
The book allows a few honorable men and women to shine. Most notable is
James McCloskey, who left his careers as a businessman and minister to
investigate wrongful-conviction claims. McCloskey, at his tiny Centurion
Ministries office in Princeton, N.J., takes on fewer than 1 percent of the
cases that come to his attention. Cook won McCloskey's attention and was
able to beat the odds, after spending two excruciating decades in prison,
where he was raped and tortured.
The overturning of one conviction in a criminal justice system that rarely
sets aside mistakes is a miracle of sorts. McCloskey and his Centurion
Ministries colleagues have played major roles in freeing more than three
dozen innocent men and women from Texas prisons and elsewhere.
Cook's saga offers little hope that McCloskey can relax anytime soon.
By Kerry Max Cook
William Morrow, $25.95
Source : Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Steve Weinberg is the former executive
director of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc.)