By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The story concluded that the state's case "consisted largely of circumstantial, prejudicial, questionable, and conveniently altered evidence." But Hanners was just getting started. Tyler police and prosecutors told him that they always suspected that Hoehn was also involved in the murder; his short, blonde hair fit Rudolph's description more than Cook's did. Hanners tracked Hoehn to Dallas, where he learned that the hairdresser had died of AIDS in 1987. But Hanners interviewed Richard Engle, who had been at Hoehn's deathbed at Parkland Hospital. Engle said Hoehn told him that the "wrong man" was sent to death row and that Cook was "never, ever guilty." Although Hoehn never admitted his own involvement, he indicated he knew more about the crime than he testified to at trial.
Hanners wasn't too popular in Tyler, but police and prosecutors tried to convince him that the real Kerry Max Cook was a street hustler who grew violent when drunk and killed for the erotic pleasure of it. Former District Attorney Clark, who was defeated for re-election in 1978, claimed that no matter what Hanners had discovered, Cook was guilty. Why, he had even confessed to Clark "off the record" during the '78 trial.
Cook and his trial attorney John Ament are both adamant: At no time did Cook confess.
Hanners continued to hammer away at Smith County in print, writing more than 40 articles that left readers with the impression that the wrong man had been condemned to die. But the Court of Criminal Appeals didn't seem to be reading the Morning News. It permitted Smith County Judge Joe Tunnell to set Cook's execution date, July 8, 1988, and for the first time, Cook had to consider the possibility that he might die before proving his innocence.
When he first arrived on death row, capital punishment wasn't even a reality for Cook. The Supreme Court had reinstated the death penalty in 1976, but the nation was still debating the issue. No one had been executed in the state since 1964.
Cook was scheduled to be the 26th person executed in Texas after the reinstitution of the death penalty. Only 11 days away from his "date," the U.S. Supreme Court granted him a stay. Then, in October 1988, the high court reversed his case and ordered the Court of Criminal Appeals to reconsider whether Cook's rights had been violated by the Grigson interview.
But on January 17, 1990, the Texas appellate court again affirmed Cook's conviction. Although Cook grew distraught, the Morning News articles had helped him win over many converts to his cause. His prison therapists at Ellis II kept him off death row for two years. Cook was even placed in a cell with a non-death row inmate, David Franklin Hunter.
Hunter was serving a 149-year sentence for a number of armed robberies. He told Cook about his girlfriend, JoAnne Ticer, who was active in a Huntsville prison ministry called Standing in the Gap. Hunter encouraged him to put her on his visitors list: Cook was lonely, she was compassionate, and they fell in love.
On July 4, 1990, Ticer and Cook married. His father, who would die of cancer the following year, served as his proxy in their church in Jacksonville. A month later, Ticer came to Cook and told him she was pregnant with another man's child and needed a divorce. At the same time, prison officials had grown concerned about leaving Cook in the general population and sent him back to death row.
Within days of his return, Cook was strip-searched by guards who were unaware of the tattoo carved into his buttocks. He pleaded with them not to make him expose it in front of the other inmates, but the weaker he sounded, the tougher they got. "Take your panties off, Cindy. Bend over and grab 'em."
Humiliated, Cook says, he returned to his cell, and a trusty passed him a note: "Tomorrow bitch, you are going to have a taste of this in the dayroom." He had drawn the shape of a penis and ejaculated onto the note.
Cook wanted out. In his cell, he swallowed a dozen cold pills. He had been told for 13 years that he wasn't a man, just a pussy who shouldn't even have a penis. So he grabbed a razor, cut his arms, his legs, and his throat and shouted, "I can't have a dick! Here, you have it!" Then he sliced off his penis and threw it at the cell door.
Blood was spurting from his neck and groin, and he began to grow faint. But before passing out, he dipped his finger in a pool of blood and wrote on the wall: "I really was an innocent man. Goodbye Mama, Daddy and JoAnne. I am sorry I could not fight it anymore. Take me home, Kerry Max Cook, Lord."
Cook came within a life's breath of cheating the executioner. Prison guards rushed him to the hospital. His penis was reattached, his life was saved, and guards captured the whole gory mess on videotape, documenting the suicide attempt for the record.
David Hanners was pissed: How could Cook try to take his life when he was working so hard to save it? Hanners had contacted Centurion Ministries to see whether it might be interested in helping Cook. The nonprofit organization, run by a rough-and-tumble minister from New Jersey named Jim McCloskey, had an amazing track record investigating the cases of those convicted but innocent. In Texas alone, McCloskey had helped free Joyce Ann Brown, a Dallas woman serving a life sentence for robbery and murder, and Clarence Brandley, an East Texas janitor wrongfully accused of murdering a schoolgirl who was freed after spending 10 years on death row.