Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Former Texas Death Row Inmate Kerry Max Cook's Case Continues to Expose Texas Prosecutors Gone Wild (In a Bad, Bad Way)

The story of an innocent man who spent over 20 years on Texas Death Row is far from over, even though Kerry Max Cook has not only been released, he has become a well-respected author and activist for ending capital punishment worldwide.

Back in 2008, Kerry Max Cook wrote a book, Chasing Justice: My Story of Freeing Myself After Two Decades on Death Row for a Crime I Didn't Commit, that detailed what happened to him in the criminal justice system and how he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and killing of Linda Jo Edwards back in 1977.

A big part of that book: all the misconduct by the prosecution in his case. Surprise, surprise.

The book, published by HarperCollins, got excellent reviews and got some very big names giving it praise, including Sister Helen Prejean, former FBI director William Sessions, and actor Richard Dreyfuss. This seems like a lot of exposure on how prosecutorial misconduct works in Texas.

But the Kerry Max Cook story isn't over yet.

Now, one of the journalists that covered his story long ago - former Dallas Morning News reporter David Hanners - is stirring things up. And Hanners may know a lot more about the extent of the evildoing that took place during the Smith County criminal trial and subsequent appellate process of Kerry Max Cook's case than Mr. Cook ever did.

Here's what is happening: Kerry Max Cook is in the process of seeking a full legal exoneration via DNA testing. This isn't being done without static from the prosecution, and the conflict is hitting the media. In particular, Cook's story made it to Texas Monthly and in response to that coverage (in a blog post, notice blogs at work for justice again) the old Dallas reporter David Hanners wrote a long comment that gave some very, very interesting tidbits.

You can read the full text of what Mr. Hanners wrote online here, and here are some of the shockers that you'll find there:

  • It took the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals nearly eight years to rule in his case because his file was "basically lost."
  • After reading the entire trial documentation (transcripts and exhibits), and without going into the story with any clue or care whether or not the man was guilty or not, the reporter determined that not only had there not been a fair trial - he determined that this man had not killed the victim. In fact, he believes it reveals who the real killers are and it's not Mr. Cook.
  • There was no basic - much less competent - police investigation, and he gives examples. With details.
  • In charging Mr. Cook and get this homicide to a capital murder charge, the police department created "theft" from a fantasy sock (yes, sock) and then alleged that body parts had been removed from the crime scene by Cook in this sock. Nevermind that the body wasn't disturbed: there were no body parts removed here. The body had not been cut up. How was this ignored? But it was ....
  • The prosecution planned on doing DNA testing; semen was found at the scene. It was tested, and lo and behold: it was not that of Mr. Cook. So instead of investigating further, the prosecution changed their case to keep Cook in their crosshairs. This, even though they knew the identity of the semen source. Amazingly blind, isn't it?

This case may end up being the example used in future classrooms of how ruthless and evil it can be when prosecutorial misconduct exists in our criminal justice system. Expect to hear more about this travesty of justice: not only from David Hanners (by the way, a Pulitzer Prize winner) but from Mr. Cook.

If Mr. Cook can win his latest efforts to obtain full exoneration through DNA testing, then he will be eligible to receive $80,000 from the State of Texas for each year he sat behind bars as an innocent man.

Here's the bigger question: what happens to the prosecutors and the police officers who were committing those injustices back in the mid-1970s? Where's the justice there?

Is the lesson for bad apple prosecutors that if they do bad things, by the time the system gets around to pointing the finger at them, decades and decades of time will have passed?