Innocence Lost

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.