In 1978 in Tyler, Texas, Kerry Max Cook was convicted of a murder he did not commit. He remained in prison until 1999 a court finally released him after he pleaded “no contest” at the conclusion of his fourth trial for this crime. Cook agreed to plead “no contest,” after maintaining his innocence for more than two decades of legal battles, because he believed at the time that he would likely be wrongfully convicted yet again and sent back to prison if he did not. The District Attorney all of a sudden offered him a deal: a plea of “no contest” would enable Cook’s release for time served. Cook took the deal and later found out that the District Attorney in question had recently acquired the results of new DNA tests of the crime scene evidence which definitively proved that Cook did not rape and murder Linda Jo Edwards. Cook and his legal team only learned of this exculpatory evidence after the plea of “no contest” had been entered, and because of this, Cook has never been legally exonerated. The murder conviction remains on his record, and at long last Cook is fighting a new legal battle to clear his name. An excellent blog posting on the Grits for Breakfast site provides further details.
Cook’s autobiography, Chasing Justice, published in 2007, describes in detail the junk science, prosecutorial misconduct, and shoddy police work which contributed to his wrongful conviction. Cook is also featured in the documentary play (and subsequent Court TV film) The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, despite the popular misconception in Cook’s case that DNA proof of actual innocence would lead automatically to legal exoneration.
When I was an undergraduate at Yale in 2001, I took a seminar about the death penalty, taught by two men who were at the time Yale Law School students. Our final assignment for the class was to research a death penalty case and write a twenty-page paper on it. I wrote about Kerry Cook, and in the course of my research, I made contact with him, and with the help of Stanton Wheeler–a law school professor and then Master of my residential college–I brought Cook and one of his lawyers to campus to speak. Kerry and I have since lost touch, but I remain deeply moved not only by his story but by his willingness to continue telling it despite how much it obviously hurts him to expose himself, his wife, and his son to continuing public scrutiny and judgment.
May you finally receive some relief from the courts, my friend. I watch your struggle with admiration and hope. Your continuing work against the death penalty and wrongful conviction serves a cause much larger than your own case, and I am among a great many people who are grateful for your life and your efforts.