By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
For this kind of decision, Kerry Max Cook needed room to pace, but 5 feet was all he would allow himself: Two steps forward, turn, two steps back, turn. The distance was set in his bones. Pacing that same 5-foot span for hours at a time had been his way of staying sane in the barbaric place where he had spent nearly half his life. Five feet was the width of his cell on death row for more than 17 years.
Although he had received a temporary reprieve from those confines, Cook kept the same pace on February 16 in Bastrop, Texas. He was about to stand trial for capital murder for an unprecedented fourth time. Again the state would be seeking the death penalty. Only this time, something was different.
With the jury ready to be selected, the prosecution was in a bargaining mood. Cook had refused their past overtures, telling them he would never plead guilty even if it meant saving his life. He had suffered too much, believed they had taken everything from him -- his youth, his dignity, his masculinity. All he had left was his claim of innocence; it had kept him alive on death row, and he wasn't about to compromise it now. "I was prepared to die for my innocence," he says.
Cook had been a condemned man since 1978, when a jury first found him guilty of the 1977 mutilation slaying of Linda Jo Edwards, a Tyler secretary. Prosecutors claimed Cook murdered Edwards while in a homosexual rage, bludgeoning her over the head with a statue to subdue her and stabbing her in the back, breasts, and neck with a vegetable knife to finish her off. Then, according to the state, in a moment of macabre perversity, he grabbed a pair of scissors and cut off part of her lower lip, a lock of her hair, and her vagina, shoving the bloody body parts into Edwards' stocking and carting them off as sexual souvenirs.
While Cook waited eight years for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to hear his case -- one of the longest direct appeals in American history -- the Smith County District Attorney's Office was accused of lying and cheating its way to a conviction. In 1991, after Cook had spent 13 years on death row, the appellate court reversed the case on constitutional grounds, ruling that his rights were violated when a state psychiatrist did not warn him that their interview could be used against him. But the court didn't consider whether the prosecution was guilty of misconduct.
A second generation of Tyler prosecutors led by chief felony prosecutor David Dobbs refused to let such a gruesome murder go unpunished. Despite several likely suspects, Smith County seemed too proud, too invested in Cook's guilt to back off. But this time, Cook's case had become something of a crusade for Centurion Ministries, an organization dedicated to fighting for the unjustly convicted. Even the conservative Dallas Morning News took up the cause. Investigative reporter David Hanners repeatedly attacked Smith County authorities in headline-grabbing front-page stories, accusing prosecutors of "railroading" Cook by building its case on "circumstantial, prejudicial, questionable, and conveniently altered evidence."
Although the second trial in 1992 resulted in a hung jury, the Smith County district attorney secured a conviction after a third trial in 1994, sending Cook back to death row. The victory, however, was short-lived. In 1996, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals again overturned Cook's conviction, this time holding that "prosecutorial and police misconduct has tainted this entire matter from the outset." Cook was released on bond, but the district attorney vowed to seek the death penalty a fourth time. "We wouldn't even consider a plea to life," David Dobbs told reporters.
But before jury selection was about to begin, the prosecution made one final offer: If Cook were to plead no contest to a reduced charge of murder, he would never see another day in prison. Judge Robert Jones, no friend of the defense, gave Cook's attorneys 30 minutes to mull it over. Once the trial began, all bets were off.
Cook, along with his lawyers and close supporters, retreated to the Pecan Inn, the Bastrop bed-and-breakfast that had become their war room. "They caved," said his Dallas attorney Cheryl Watley. "It must be the DNA. It's the only reason."
Only days before, the state crime lab in Austin had discovered a semen stain on the panties that Edwards was wearing when she was killed. Was it the murderer's semen? A DNA analysis might reveal that it was. It would be the middle of the trial before the results were known.
But Cook had only minutes to decide his fate, and he began to pace. "I need you guys to help me figure this out," he told those assembled.
Jim McCloskey, the tough, burly minister from Centurion Ministries who had taken on Cook's case nearly a decade before, welled up in tears. "Kerry, I know it's your decision, but I believe this time you'll go free."
"I say fuck 'em," said Steven "Rocket" Rosen, Cook's attorney from Houston. "I say we go to trial. I think we can beat 'em."