Innocence Lost

Railroaded onto death row, Kerry Max Cook endures rapes, beatings, and suicide attempts while waiting for justice

The jury would hear, however, from Robert Wickham, a reserve Smith County sheriff's deputy, who testified that while he was escorting Cook from the jail to jury selection in 1978, Cook asked him, "Do you think I killed her?...Well, I killed her, and I don't give a shit what they do to me." Yet for 14 years, Wickham never felt compelled to bring this confession to the attention of prosecutors because it would be "his word against mine," Wickham testified.

"You're a liar!" Cook shouted in open court. "This is unbelievable." After calming his client, Nugent brought out that Wickham had never transported a prisoner either before or after Cook, and painted him as a wannabe cop who was lying to grab attention. There were no employment records to show he even worked that day. And what law enforcement officer wouldn't leap at the chance of nailing a capital murder suspect who had just confessed?

With Robert Hoehn dead, Cook's lawyers couldn't cross-examine him about his original statement to the police (suppressed by Clark) that he and Cook had never had sexual relations. The state was permitted to introduce a transcript of his '78 testimony, deleting prejudicial references to Hoehn and Cook having anal and oral sex while watching a movie -- though Hoehn's testimony that Cook had masturbated on the carpet during the movie remained. And despite Hoehn telling the grand jury that Cook had paid little attention to the movie, Tunnell allowed the jury to view the entire film.

Kerry Cook was scheduled to be the 26th person executed in Texas by lethal injection. Eleven days before his "date," the U.S. Supreme Court granted him a stay.
Dawn Villella
Kerry Cook was scheduled to be the 26th person executed in Texas by lethal injection. Eleven days before his "date," the U.S. Supreme Court granted him a stay.

Nevertheless, Nugent and his co-counsel, Chris Flood, hammered away at the state's case, scoring points against the Tyler police for its shoddy investigation: Why were the Mayfields dismissed as suspects so easily? Why hadn't the police found the knife at the scene? Why hadn't the victim's panties been tested for DNA?

Jim Mayfield testified as expected: He had been home with his wife and daughter on the night of the murder; he hadn't been romantically involved with Linda Jo Edwards for three weeks prior to her death. But Mayfield seemed cold and unmoved by the tragedy, Cook recalls.

The defense even had its way with pathologist Dr. V.V. Gonzalez, who admitted that his original autopsy report about Edwards said nothing about missing body parts. At first he testified that they had been cut out, but then confessed that nothing was actually missing and that extensive stabbing and cutting had destroyed the lip and vagina. Dallas pathologist Dr. Linda Norton, one of the 12 defense witnesses, testified that she had serious doubts any body parts were missing. "This wasn't a souvenir crime," she said recently. "Her vaginal wounds were associated with a love relationship gone bad."

In closing arguments, prosecutors took the same position as their predecessors had 14 years earlier: Cook murdered Edwards in a homicidal frenzy, severing her body parts after being aroused by a cat-mutilation scene in a movie. Cook then stuffed these bloody body parts into Edwards' stocking, which he then stole. That's why the stocking was missing from the scene.

When the jury retired to deliberate its verdict, it asked to review some of the exhibits: documents, photos, the clothing of the deceased. Five hours later, they sent out a note: "We found the stocking."

For a brief moment, Cook believed he had certain proof that the prosecution's case was bogus: There was no missing stocking, no sexual souvenirs, no stranger-on-stranger thrill kill. Just a shoddy police investigation. When a juror was examining Edwards' blue jeans, he reached up into a pants leg and pulled out the "missing" stocking. Five days later, after voting six to six, the jurors declared themselves hopelessly deadlocked.

If there had been some plausible explanation as to how Cook's fingerprints got on the door, jurors told Cook's lawyers, they would have acquitted him. But Tunnell had barred that testimony as hearsay, challenging Cook to take the witness stand and explain the fingerprints himself. But that was a risk his lawyers were unwilling to take.

Prosecutors immediately vowed to try Cook a third time, and he was returned to the Smith County jail. For the next 11 months, Cook was placed in solitary confinement, afraid that if he spoke to a prisoner or guard, he might be facing another jailhouse confession. "Look what they had done with Shyster Jackson, then A.D. Clark in the press, then Robert Wickham," Cook says. Before the second trial, the prosecution had even impaneled a grand jury to gather new evidence. Their lead witness was David Franklin Hunter, who certainly had a vendetta against Cook for marrying his girlfriend. Franklin told grand jurors that when they were cellmates, Cook confessed to him as well, said he had even eaten the victim's body parts. He would later recant his testimony, Cook says, and never testified at trial.

The third trial was set to begin in January 1994, again in Georgetown, only this time without Judge Tunnell, who had retired. Instead, visiting Judge Robert Jones, an unpopular district judge who had been defeated for re-election in Travis County, was assigned the case. He immediately adopted all of Tunnell's rulings from the '92 trial -- all evidence of prosecutorial misconduct would be banned; all testimony that Cook was an invited guest in Linda Jo Edwards' apartment would be disallowed unless it came from Cook himself. The '92 trial seemed as if it were a dress rehearsal for the '94 premier: The state's witnesses were more prepared this time, more committed to Cook's guilt than ever.

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