When Kerry Max Cook arrived on death row on July 18, 1978, he was given a haircut, doused with disinfectant, tagged with an execution number, and branded a punk, a fag, a bitch, a girl. His reputation as a sexually confused killer who mutilated and murdered a Tyler woman in a homosexual rage had preceded him. The prosecution had argued that he had severed her body parts -- a lock of her hair, part of her lip, the wall of her vagina. Then he placed these bloody parts in a stocking she had been wearing and ate them.
It was all Cook could do to push those words out of his head. But when he thought about being on death row for a crime that he says he didn't commit, when he thought about his mother and father and big brother -- he cried like a baby.
Showing weakness on death row invited attack. No one, not the inmates, not the guards, has any respect for a punk. A punk is someone who gets raped and doesn't fight back, who gets disrespected and doesn't avenge the insult.
At 22, Cook came to death row with his eyebrows and legs shaven, compliments of some Smith County jail prisoners who had been following his trial. He was taken to Ellis I, a penitentiary unit 15 miles outside of Huntsville and placed in J23, one of the bleak, "supersegregated" cellblocks that houses death row inmates. Shortly after he arrived, three men jumped him in the recreation yard. They stood him up against the wall, and each had his way with him. While two of them held him down, a third took a razor rigged to give inmates tattoos and carved the words "Good Pussy" into his buttocks.
On death row, violence has to be met with violence, but Cook never fought back, figuring he had too much at stake. If he were to face another jury, the prison guards would testify against him: Of course he's a threat to society. Even behind bars he was a vicious animal. "My innocence was my entire life down there," Cook says. "I wasn't going to compromise it because somebody raped me."
He figured that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would see the error of the jury's verdict and that he would be free within a year, maybe two. He didn't realize that the judicial system doesn't like to correct itself, nor did he anticipate how committed Smith County was to seeing him dead. Little did he know that 21 years later, even after he had been freed, he would still be fighting to prove his innocence.
But in 1978, Cook grew hopeful as the first crack in the prosecution's case came earlier than expected.
Edward "Shyster" Jackson, a trusty in the Smith County jail awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge, offered some of the most damning testimony against Kerry Cook in his 1978 trial. Cook had confessed to him, Jackson testified, when they shared a cell. Cook admitted to him that he had stabbed the dark-haired Linda Jo Edwards, "gouging out her vagina" and "taking a piece" with him. Although Jackson claimed that he had been offered no leniency in exchange for his testimony, and prosecutor Michael Thompson passionately argued to the jury that he didn't make deals with killers, two months after Cook's verdict, Jackson walked out of prison a free man with a deal engineered by Thompson.
Three weeks after his release, in an interview with Dallas Morning News reporters Donnis Baggett and Howard Swindle, Jackson claimed he lied about Cook's confession to save himself. Jackson swore his testimony was a fabrication orchestrated by A.D. Clark III, the Smith County district attorney. Jackson said he was shown photographs of the murder scene and fed information about the crime that only the killer would know.
Clark denied coaching Jackson and said that if a deal was struck, prosecutor Michael Thompson did it without Clark's knowledge. (Clark declined to be interviewed for this story.) Regrettably, Thompson couldn't defend himself. He had committed suicide before the article was published, putting a gun to his head on the same day he had been interrogated by federal officials for allegedly taking bribes on drug cases.
Yet nothing resulted from the disclosure that Cook's conviction was based, in part, on fabricated testimony. Cook's appellate attorney, Harry Heard of Longview, included Jackson's recantation in the record, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seemed in no hurry to rule.
On death row, Cook decided that he had placed too much trust in lawyers and began to educate himself in the law. Death row inmates were allowed only two law books a week, and Cook would sit at his $25 Royal typewriter, typing out each word of a decision that might bear some relevance to his case. Since he couldn't afford carbon paper, he would retype the same document as many as 10 times, sending it out to anyone willing to listen.
It saddened him when he finally got a copy of his court record and read what they said about him: Cook being driven into a sexual frenzy after watching a cat-mutilation scene in a movie that he says he never saw. Cook being positively identified by a woman who got the length and color of his hair and the style of his clothes wrong.
Every scrap of paper, every document, every letter from a lawyer, a court clerk, a reporter, became part of Cook's "bible." Working on his case kept him sane on death row -- when his cellmate was sexually abusing him, when someone pulled a knife on him, when the guards humiliated him by ordering him to remove his "panties."
On February 13, 1980, Harry Heard argued Cook's case before the appeals court in Austin, attacking the conviction by raising 20 legal points of error. Chief among them was Heard's contention that testimony by prosecution psychiatrist Dr. James Grigson, who branded Cook a sociopath beyond all hope of rehabilitation, should never have been admitted because Grigson had not warned Cook that their interview could be used against him.
Why the appeals court took eight years to decide -- longer than any other capital case in the nation -- is still a mystery, but on December 9, 1987, it affirmed Cook's conviction by an 8-1 vote.
The decision devastated Cook. Heard withdrew as his counsel. His parents had stopped visiting him, and he began to lose hope. "I was surrounded by insanity," Cook says.
Three weeks after the ruling, Cook was brought into the chaplain's office and handed the phone. It was his father. "He's gone, son. Your brother was killed last night." Cook dropped the phone -- Doyle Wayne had been his best friend, his biggest supporter. Now he was dead, slain outside a pool hall.
Cook refused to leave his cell, didn't eat or sleep. He couldn't stop crying and left himself open to attack. One day the guards forced him to shower, and another inmate jumped him, raping him repeatedly. Cook returned to his cell, found a razor among his things, and slit his throat.
The suicide attempt resulted in Cook's removal from death row and placement in the psychiatric ward at the Ellis II unit. Here, instead of violence and abuse, he received treatment, working with prison therapists to battle what had become his worst enemy: despair.
In February 1988, Cook was given fresh hope when Scott Howe, a University of Texas law professor with the Texas Death Penalty Resource Center, agreed to appeal his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. That same month, David Hanners, a tenacious Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter with the Morning News, requested an interview with him, vowing to take a hard look at his case. "Cook was very intense and nervous," Hanners recalls. "But there didn't seem to be a lot of artifice to him."
Cook, however, admits he lied to Hanners. "I told him I had never been inside Linda Jo Edwards' apartment -- that's what my attorneys argued in 1978." The only physical evidence linking Cook to the apartment was his fingerprints, and Cook told Hanners that he had placed his fingers on her patio door when he was peering into her apartment, trying to catch a glimpse of Edwards nude. And that's how Hanners explained Cook's fingerprints to his readers in a front-page story headlined: "Inmate was Railroaded, Inquiry Suggests."
What Hanners didn't yet know was that grand jurors were told that Cook had been inside Edwards' apartment three days before the murder. Three witnesses testified Cook had told them that he had met Edwards at the swimming pool and that the two had gone to her apartment and necked. Despite its duty to disclose this exculpatory evidence, the prosecution concealed it from Cook's lawyers and then went to trial on the theory that this was a stranger-on-stranger murder.
Nevertheless, Hanners' story ripped apart the state's case witness by witness:
··· Tyler police Sgt. Doug Collard had testified that the fingerprints he discovered on the door were 6 to 12 hours old, effectively placing Cook at the scene at the time of the murder. Yet FBI experts interviewed by Hanners said that from examination alone, it is scientifically impossible to age a latent print down to an hour or even a day.
··· Eyewitness Paula Rudolph, Edwards' roommate, told the police that the man she thought she saw in her apartment was Jim Mayfield, her boss at Texas Eastern University, describing his hair as silver and just long enough to touch his ears. At the trial a year later, she positively identified Cook, saying the bright lights in the bedroom must have made his dark brown hair reflect silver. Cook also had shoulder-length hair.
··· Robert Hoehn, a Tyler hairdresser who had been with Cook for the two hours before the murder, provided the state's theory of motive. Prosecutors contended that, in the company of Hoehn, Cook was sexually excited by a provocative movie, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, which depicted a scene where a cat was mutilated; Cook, frustrated by not being able to perform sexually with Hoehn, was driven into a homicidal frenzy when not 30 minutes later, he reenacted the movie by mutilating Edwards. However, a close examination of the trial transcript revealed that Cook appeared normal when Hoehn later dropped him off outside the apartments and that neither Hoehn nor Cook watched the cat-mutilation scene. Of course, that didn't stop prosecutors from forcefully arguing to the jury that Cook had been driven into a sexual frenzy after watching the entire movie.
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.
Labeled by the media as the "divine detective," McCloskey accepted Cook's case. "It didn't take a good deal of intellectual acuity to figure out who did this," he claims. "It was Jim Mayfield who Paula Rudolph saw, naked from the waist up."
And that's whom McCloskey targeted, interviewing more than 50 individuals -- friends, relatives, and colleagues, who "almost to a person believe that Mayfield...could very well have killed Linda Jo Edwards."
Jim Mayfield had been Linda's boss and lover, hiring her as his periodicals clerk when he was dean of library services at Texas Eastern University (now the University of Texas at Tyler). Their 18-month affair was tumultuous, taking place under the nose of his wife as Mayfield brought Edwards into his home under the guise of helping her through a difficult divorce. (Attempts to contact Mayfield both directly and through his attorney were unsuccessful.)
Mayfield had a fiery temper, says Olene Harned, who was the head of public services at the library. "You never knew what was going to set it off...He was one of the most manipulative individuals I have ever known." He was a domineering husband and a demanding father, and McCloskey learned that no one in Mayfield's family would stand up to him.
Linda Edwards became something of a project for Mayfield: She was like an eager child, half his age, and he took credit for transforming her from a country bumpkin into a lovely young woman. He put her on a diet, helped her lose more than 60 pounds. And the sex between them was intense, adventurous, and risky.
After 23 years of marriage, Mayfield decided to leave his wife, moving into the Embarcadero Apartments with Edwards. Only he missed his home on Lake Palestine, and told Harned that Edwards was too young for him. After four days, he returned to his wife, leaving his girlfriend suicidal. On May 20, 1977 (21 days before her murder), Edwards swallowed a handful of sleeping pills. After convalescing in the hospital for a week, Edwards moved in with Paula Rudolph, who also lived at the Embarcadero and worked at the library. Mayfield would later testify that the suicide attempt brought their affair to the attention of the university, and he and Edwards were both fired.
Mayfield would also testify that his reconciliation with his wife ended all romantic involvement with Edwards, yet that he continued to see Edwards more as a father would a daughter. On the day before the murder, however, he admitted that he "necked" with her while they were alone in her apartment. He also told Harned that he was worried that Edwards might follow him to Houston, where he had taken a new job, and later told another library employee that he was angry with Edwards for ruining his life and destroying his career.
Jim McCloskey believed it was obvious: Mayfield was sexually addicted to the woman, torn between his wife and his seductive girlfriend. On the day of the murder, Edwards and Mayfield saw each other at least four separate times. The final time, according to Mayfield, was at 8 p.m. outside his house. Edwards then went to visit a friend, history professor Andrew Szarka, who would later testify that she told him that she had upset Mayfield because she wanted to date other men. Five hours later, Linda Jo Edwards was dead.
That kind of anger, thought McCloskey, directed at her sexual parts, had all the markings of a jealous lover.
Three days after the murder, a rattled Mayfield asked his friend, Dr. Gary Mears, who ran a polygraph lab on campus, if Mears would help him "beat" a lie detector test. Mears refused, but Mayfield apparently could have used his help. In his 1992 pre-trial deposition, Mayfield testified that he may have taken as many as six polygraphs and admitted, "I didn't pass all of them."
McCloskey reduced his investigative findings to a 22-page memorandum titled "Why Centurion Ministries Believes Jim Mayfield Killed Linda Jo Edwards." His timing couldn't have been better. On September 19, 1991, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in a rare moment of vacillation, reversed both itself and the Cook case. Cook had received what he had dreamed of for 13 tortured years: another shot at proving his innocence.
Smith County had to decide whether it wanted to try Cook again: The case had grown old, memories had faded, and witnesses were dead or behind bars. The current district attorney, Jack Skeen, had nothing to do with accusations of misconduct leveled by the Morning News against his predecessor Clark, although the men were cousins. Skeen assigned the case to prosecutor David Dobbs, who seemed eager to work with McCloskey and Hanners in getting at the truth. Dobbs would tell them that his office had no stake in the Cook case -- after all, he was only in high school when Cook was tried the first time. (Dobbs failed to return repeated phone calls by the Observer requesting an interview.)
In the fall of 1991, Dobbs and McCloskey went to the Embarcadero Apartments and re-enacted Paula Rudolph's encounter with the man she assumed was Jim Mayfield on the night of the murder. "Dobbs played Rudolph, and I played the killer," McCloskey recalls. "Afterward, Dobbs told me that he didn't think Rudolph saw Kerry."
McCloskey believed he could convince Dobbs that Mayfield was the killer, and he gave him a copy of his investigative report. Within two weeks, McCloskey says, Dobbs shared the report with Mayfield himself. "David Dobbs betrayed me," McCloskey claims. "He was just gathering ammunition to rebut what we had learned and prepare for trial."
Apparently McCloskey had misread how invested the prosecution was in keeping Cook on death row. To them, Cook wasn't just some anonymous inmate whose case was reversed on a technicality. He was a vicious celebrity criminal who had attacked the integrity of Smith County justice. With the help of a big-city newspaper, he had made the people of Tyler look foolish.
Centurion convinced Houston attorney Paul Nugent to represent Cook for free. Boston-born, Nugent possessed a New England reserve and a bearing not dissimilar to a Kennedy. After clerking for a federal judge in Galveston, he moved to Houston to join the firm of renowned criminal attorney Percy Foreman.
Nugent maintains that he has "never encountered a district attorney's office as dishonorable as Smith County's." In the late fall of '91, Nugent and Dobbs were sifting through a box of documents when Nugent noticed a thick memo written by Sgt. Doug Collard to a fingerprint certification board. A grievance had been filed against Collard by another examiner after the Morning News had questioned how the officer could date a latent fingerprint down to the hour. Collard responded that he knew there was no scientific validity to his opinion and that it was "a mistake" to express it. But district attorney Clark had pressured him to testify that way and the sergeant, now a captain, apparently lacked the will to resist. The whole episode sank to the level of flagrant prosecutorial misconduct.
Dobbs also gave Nugent grand jury testimony and witness statements -- exculpatory evidence that had been denied Cook's first attorneys. Four witnesses -- Hoehn, James Taylor, and Taylor's nephews, Randy and Rodney Dykes -- had testified before the grand jury that Cook had told them days before the murder that he had met Edwards at the swimming pool and she had given him the hickeys that they each saw on his neck. (James Taylor was unaware of Cook's claim that he had entered Edwards' apartment.) This ran counter to the state's theory in the '78 trial that this was a stranger-on-stranger murder. It was a theory the state would be loath to give up.
On March 4, 1992, Judge Joe Tunnell, who would preside over the case, ordered Cook back to the Smith County jail. Cook had decided to leave his radio and typewriter behind, hopeful that he would never see death row again. Those hopes were quickly dashed when David Dobbs greeted him in the jail.
Cook says he told Dobbs he didn't want to speak with him, terrified that he was just trying to get him to confess. "Dobbs said he was working with McCloskey," Cook recalls, "and was willing to listen to any evidence of my innocence." Cook became hysterical, telling Dobbs that his predecessor, A.D. Clark, had made him out to be a homosexual, and look where that got him. Cook then dropped his pants, he says, and showed Dobbs the tattoo etched into his buttocks.
Dobbs would tell a different story, claiming he warned Cook not to speak with him unless his attorney was present. Yet Dobbs knew that Cook was represented by counsel, and Judge Tunnell would later rebuke Dobbs for his "improper" and "misguided"..."breach of duty and protocol" by speaking to a defendant without his attorney being present.
In jail, Cook was allowed one phone call and contacted David Hanners. The Morning News would recount the jailhouse confrontation in a story that questioned the ethics of the prosecutor. Two months later, Smith County announced it would retry Cook.
Tunnell was a cantankerous jurist who ran his courtroom with a heavy gavel. On his own motion, he changed the venue of the case from Tyler to Georgetown, a town noted for its law-and-order juries. When the trial began in October 1992, the state once again portrayed Cook as a sadistic voyeur who didn't know his victim and cut off her body parts before stuffing them in a stocking as sexual souvenirs. Tunnell aided them in that portrayal. He permitted the Dykes brothers to testify that Cook said he had seen the victim naked while he was peering into her window. But he excluded Cook's statement that he had been an invited guest inside Edwards' apartment, ruling it was hearsay and leaving the defense with no plausible explanation as to how Cook's fingerprints got on Edwards' patio door.
If Dobbs had wanted payback against Hanners, he certainly got it when he called Cook's most ardent defender as a witness for the prosecution. Hanners reluctantly testified that Cook had told him during their death row interview that he didn't know Edwards, once again corroborating the state's stranger-on-stranger theory.
Tunnell refused to allow the defense to present any evidence of police or prosecutorial misconduct from the '78 trial. The jury would never learn that Smith County prosecutors had presented what defense attorneys claimed was perjured testimony, had suppressed highly exculpatory evidence, or had insisted a fingerprint examiner give an opinion that was a scientific impossibility.
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.
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.
In '92, Jim Mayfield came across as heartless and cold, distancing himself from his affair as if it were some meaningless tryst. In front of the '94 jury, he cried -- huge crocodile tears. At 60, he also seemed frail and grandfatherly, Nugent recalls, not the robust lover who would kill out of jealous rage.
As in the '92 trial, the defense developed the theory that Mayfield's daughter Louella also had a strong motive to murder Edwards, though Louella would deny killing her. But she testified that after she learned about her father's affair, Louella felt betrayed by her friend Linda and threatened to kill her. Police records labeled Louella a pathological liar and mentally unstable. Oddly enough, Tyler police reports further revealed that after Edwards' suicide attempt, Louella was seen dressed in a police uniform at the Embarcadero Apartments, asking residents if they knew anything about "a homicide" involving Linda Jo Edwards and James Mayfield.
Once again, eyewitness Paula Rudolph was unflappable. As in '92, she refined her '78 testimony that bright lights had caused her to "assume" that she had seen Jim Mayfield rather than Cook. A "halo effect" from two 100-watt bulbs must have made Cook's dark brown hair look silver and must have cut his shoulder-length hair right at the ears.
Although the '92 trial forced the state to abandon its missing-stocking theory, David Dobbs still maintained that Cook had severed his victim's body parts. This theory enabled FBI psychological profiler David Gomez to testify that the murder was not a "domestic homicide" committed by a lover in a jealous rage, but rather a "lust murder" committed by a stranger who severed body parts as trophies and who was motivated to kill out of some kind of "sexual ambivalence." Gomez defined a person who was sexually ambivalent as someone who did not know if they were heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual (i.e., Cook).
To counter Gomez's testimony, the defense turned to one of the foremost authorities on criminal profiling in the world, Robert Ressler, the man who co-authored the book upon which Gomez had based his expertise.
Ressler believed the murder was a domestic homicide -- a killing between two people who were sexually intimate. His analysis of the crime scene indicated that extreme rage was directed toward the vaginal region, which would indicate an "intent on the part of the killer to destroy the area of previous sexual interest." Ressler would later say he had never heard of a case where sexual ambivalence was offered as a motive for murder. "It was just something Gomez made up."
Ressler's testimony could have been riveting -- if Judge Jones would have allowed it. Before he took the witness stand, Ressler had reviewed a transcript of what Gomez had told jurors days earlier, and Jones held that Ressler had violated the rule that forbids witnesses from hearing one another's testimony. Although expert witnesses are often exempt from the rule, Judge Jones said he felt "manipulated." Robert Ressler would not testify, Jones said, even though he might be committing an error that was grounds for reversing the case.
The importance of that ruling was quickly felt: After four days of deadlocked deliberations, the jury sent out a note requesting that it be read portions of Gomez's testimony. Within hours the deadlock was broken, and Cook was found guilty of capital murder.
The punishment phase of the trial started the next day, and Jones permitted the prosecution to play the videotape of Cook's 1991 death row suicide attempt -- 45 minutes of graphic bloodletting when Cook could no longer bear the barbarism of death row. David Dobbs had a more sinister spin: He argued this was no suicide attempt, but an act of violence that Cook directed at himself for lack of other victims.
On March 3, 1994, Cook was sentenced to death for the second time in 16 years.
Nugent wanted Cook to remain silent, but Cook, standing before the bench, couldn't help himself. "With respect to the jury, with respect to the judge, with respect to the Edwards family, I am an innocent man. And Lord forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Cook had convinced himself that he was never coming back to death row. Yet here he was, confronting the same guards who had berated him, the same inmates who had raped him. Nothing had changed, not even his execution number.
Battling depression, Cook began to work with Paul Nugent on his appellate brief. "It had to be a seminal document," Cook says. "It had to tell the Court of Criminal Appeals the whole history of this case." After 18 months of research and writing, Nugent filed his brief: 213 pages, 55 points of error, claiming the Smith County district attorney had engaged in egregious misconduct spanning 15 years, which had denied Cook a fair trial. But Cook had no faith in the system. He didn't think the court would have the courage to reverse his case again.
He began to study scripture in earnest; he made contact with a Dallas woman, Mikaela Raine, who was interested in ministering to prisoners. She would eventually agree to be his spiritual advisor, standing by him in those final moments as he entered the death chamber. "When they execute me," he told her, "I want your face to be the last I see."
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.
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.
Judge Jones moved the case to Bastrop, Texas. Centurion had hired Colorado jury consultant Neil Hirshorn, who, after reviewing the responses of the jury panel to the questionnaire he had prepared, decided the jury was too old, too conservative, too aligned with law enforcement to be trusted. "This jury scares me," he told Cook on the eve of trial. "They don't have the backbone to put the system on trial."
Despite their public statements that Smith County wanted Cook back on death row, prosecutors seemed interested in making a deal. Would Cook plead guilty to a 40-year sentence? Would he plead guilty to his time served in prison? "Kerry's essence was his innocence," Watley says. "He was willing to die rather than admit he was guilty." He instructed Watley to refuse all offers.
On February 5, 1999, only 11 days before trial, Watley received a phone call from Dobbs. The state had submitted the victim's panties found beside her leg to the DPS crime lab in Austin for DNA testing. Amazingly, a semen stain was found after all these years. Now Dobbs wanted blood samples from Cook, as well as Jim Mayfield, whose attorney said he would cooperate immediately. Dobbs would ask Parkland Hospital for a blood sample from Robert Hoehn. He also wanted a continuance. But Jones insisted the parties begin jury selection while the tests were being completed.
On February 16, only 30 minutes before jury selection, the prosecution made its final offer. If Cook would plead "no contest" to a reduced charge of murder, he could walk out of the courtroom a free man. There would be no fingerprinting, no checking in and out of prison, no admission of guilt. The judge would find him guilty of murder, but not because of any confession from Cook.
After Cook huddled with his lawyers, friends, and supporters, Watley finally told him outright: "Kerry, we want you to come home. Put an end to this nightmare today."
Reluctantly, Cook accepted the prosecution's offer.
But that didn't stop Cook. Even as a free man, he was driven to prove his innocence, and he hung his hopes on the DNA test results. Semen stains found at the scene of a crime seemed like fairly damning evidence -- only the prosecution appeared in no hurry to release the results. Apparently Mayfield wasn't quite as cooperative as his attorney first indicated, Cook says. He didn't provide a blood sample until a month after Cook's plea. Only after Cook went to the media did the prosecution finally reveal that the recovered DNA matched Mayfield.
Although the state had argued in its motion for continuance how important the test was to both the state and the defense, David Dobbs now dismissed the results as irrelevant. He claimed that the semen stain might even survive if the panties had been washed, which suggested that intercourse might have occurred long before the murder. (One serologist contacted by the Observer said that the chance of a testable amount of semen surviving washing would be "close to impossible.")
"Why was Smith County trying to undermine this?" Cook asks. At a minimum, the results destroyed Jim Mayfield's credibility. He had testified repeatedly that he had not had sex with Edwards since before her suicide attempt, three weeks prior to the murder. Now there was evidence showing he might have had sex with her within hours of her death.
Dobbs told reporters that as far as he was concerned, the case was closed.
But for Cook there can be no closure. He lives somewhere in the gray between guilt and innocence, acquittal and conviction. Some nights he can't sleep, hearing the jury's verdict in his head. Other nights he regrets compromising himself, making a deal for less than "complete and total exoneration." Wherever he goes, he has to explain himself: at every job he applies for, in every media interview he grants, to every friend he takes into his confidence. And no matter how convincing he sounds, no matter how clearly he makes a case that prosecutors lied and cheated to keep him on death row for 17 years, he knows that some people will always doubt him. Some people will always wonder, "Yeah, but what if he really did do it?" And it's at those moments that Kerry Cook believes there are some fates worse than death.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.