Longform

Innocence Lost

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··· 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.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald