Innocence Lost

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

Cook's god had always been his innocence: He worshiped all the well-organized binders that filled the many shelves of his cramped cell. Every piece of paper, every legal document was sacred; bending even one was a sacrilege.

One morning around 3 o'clock, Cook says, he couldn't sleep. He got down on his knees and began to pray, crying out loud and begging for answers. "God, why me? My brother was murdered. My father died of cancer. I'm all alone. Why won't you let me die? I've tried to kill myself four times, but you won't let me go. Is it the anger for the man who murdered my brother? Is that why you're keeping me from your Grace? I forgive the man who murdered my brother. I swear to God I forgive him...Is it my anger toward the prosecution, Lord, is that what's doing it? OK, I forgive the prosecutors. I'm not angry or vindictive. I forgive them, God. I forgive..."

That day, he gathered up the papers that meant life to him on death row -- his journals, witness affidavits, photos, legal correspondence -- and he dropped them in the trash can outside his cell.

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.

Two weeks later, on November 6, 1996, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction. Again.

Although the appeals court ruled that "police and prosecutorial misconduct" had "tainted this matter from the outset," it refused to ban Smith County from retrying Cook again. The court did, however, prohibit the further use of Robert Hoehn's '78 testimony. The loss of his testimony would put the state at a disadvantage, but on October 6, 1997, Smith County prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty against Cook for an unprecedented fourth time. "We wouldn't even consider a plea to life," David Dobbs told reporters.

A month later, after two decades behind bars, Cook posted $100,000 bond -- the first ever set in the case -- and was released from the Smith County jail pending trial. "There are no words to articulate what it felt like walking out of jail a free man," Cook says. Paul Nugent was there, and Jim McCloskey put up the bail money. David Dobbs watched from a distance.

But prison had "institutionalized" Cook, made him dependent on others. He had been unable to make a move, eat a meal, go to the bathroom, without first asking permission from a guard. Now he was confronted with an unfamiliar world of limitless choices, a louder, faster world of computers and cell phones and automated teller machines.

He didn't trust living in Jacksonville with his mother -- it was too close to Tyler -- and when Mikaela Raine and her family offered him a room in their Dallas home, he jumped at the chance. He hated being alone, disliked crowds, and often slept on the floor. He was playful with her children, and in many ways, he was still a little boy himself.

Centurion Ministries realized Cook would need therapy, and he began seeing Dr. Ryche Marshall, formerly the chief clinical psychologist at Terrell State Hospital. "Kerry was the most traumatized person I've ever seen in my life," she says. "But he was no sociopath like the prosecution said; he was just the opposite -- gentle, vulnerable, empathetic."

After six months with the Raine family, Cook began feeling more independent. He got an apartment and a car, found a job as a legal assistant with a Dallas law firm. He began dating Sandra Pressey, an environmental consultant whom he met at an Amnesty International meeting.

And he began taking in strays. "I got myself in all kinds of weird situations," Cook says. Whether they were a DWI client from work, a homeless man on the street, or a topless dancer who had somehow gotten a hold of his business card, he offered to help them with their problems. "It reached a point where I felt I needed to be his bodyguard," Pressey says. "He got a letter from a death row inmate who said he was going to make up a confession story if Kerry didn't do what he wanted."

This trial would be different from the others. Centurion Ministries had received a $500,000 contribution from an anonymous Wall Street investor -- the defense would be able to match the state dollar for dollar in trial preparation. McCloskey had hired the best experts in the world -- fingerprint experts, pathologists -- he even found a lighting expert who would refute Paula Rudolph's "halo" theory.

As the trial date approached, Cook decided to switch lawyers. Paul Nugent seemed tired. The case needed a fresh perspective. Even Jim McCloskey agreed. Through his job, Cook became friends with Dallas criminal attorney Cheryl Watley. She became his sounding board, his confidante, his lawyer.

Watley wanted to change the calculus of the case, believing that the only way Judge Jones would let the defense tell its story was if Cook himself took the witness stand. Let him tell about meeting Linda Jo Edwards, let him explain how his fingerprints got on the patio door. That would solve any hearsay problems with the Dykes brothers, but it would open Cook up to David Dobbs' cross-examination. If Cook were still on death row, he'd be unable to stand up to authority. But "over a year of being a free man gave me my balls back," Cook says. There were risks, of course: Cook had a criminal history, had lied to the media, had mutilated himself -- all this would have to be explained.

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