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Monday, March 31, 2008

How a death row inmate was guilty until proven innocent

The following is a column by Randall Beach


The first thing I asked Kerry Max Cook was whether he is bitter that he spent 22 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
His answer surprised me.
“I’m not bitter at all,” he said. “I consider myself the luckiest man alive.”
He sounded like the New York Yankees’ Lou Gehrig proclaiming himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” after he was diagnosed with a terminal disease.
But Cook explained: “I have a 7-year-old son (Kerry Justice Cook). When he says, ‘Daddy, I love you,’ it wipes away my memories of death row.”
We were sitting in the cafe of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, which is about as far away as you can get from being on death row in Texas. Cook was in town last Tuesday night to talk about his experience and promote his book, “Chasing Justice: My Story of Freeing Myself After Two Decades on Death Row for a Crime I Didn’t Commit.”
He noted, “If I’d allowed my anger and bitterness to consume me, I’d have traded one prison for another. What enabled me to be free is the ability to forgive those who wronged me.”
But he was scarred by what he endured, emotionally and physically. He said he was raped repeatedly in prison; his tormentors carved the word “pussy” on his buttocks.
Cook has moved beyond all this. He showed me page 263 of his book, the passage that begins, “It was all or nothing: If I was going to spend my days serving God instead of man and my case, then I had to clean out my closet first.”
In that long paragraph he forgave the police, the prosecutors and the rest of “the cast of players who had conspired to falsely convict me and to kill me.”
Cook’s troubles began in 1977, shortly after University of Texas secretary Linda Jo Edwards, 21, was beaten, stabbed and sexually mutilated in her apartment.
Cook was victimized by testimony from a witness, who was later discredited. One year later, he was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.
That sentence was reversed by an appeals court, leading to a 1992 retrial resulting in a hung jury. But he was convicted again in 1994, got the death sentence again, then had that conviction overturned, too, when a Texas appeals court ruled prosecutors hid evidence. An aborted fourth trial ended in 1999 when Cook agreed to a no-contest plea.
Cook says his case might never have been heard by the appeals courts if it weren’t for efforts by Centurion Ministries (a prisoners’ advocate group) and a reporter for the Dallas Morning News. He might have been executed.
Alluding to who lives or dies on death row, Cook said, “It’s like a lottery.” He said four innocent people were executed while he was there.
But what really cleared Cook was the arrival of DNA testing. A test of the panties Edwards was wearing at the time she was killed showed semen deposits left by another man, who was originally on a list of suspects.
When I asked Cook where the murderer is today, he said, “He’s in Houston, Texas. That’s all I know.”
I remarked it must be upsetting to think about that guy walking around a free man, but Cook just said, “There were a few years when it used to bother me.”
Twice while in prison he tried to kill himself. He became profoundly depressed when his brother was murdered. But he said, “I was brought back from near-death. I came to understand my brother was gone. I didn’t want him to be known as the brother of a murderer. It became about fighting for the family name.”
He said it came down to this: “I could’ve been executed, except I never gave up.”
We left the cafe and he walked into a room of about 70 people, many of them advocates for prisoners’ rights and legal reform.
“I wrote this book not to complain,” he told them, “but to be part of how to fix the justice system.”
He noted, “Prosecutors say you’re guilty and people believe them. You say you’re innocent and no one believes you. It’s Wal-Mart justice for the poor and Saks Fifth Avenue for the rich.”
Recalling those four people executed whom he believed were innocent, Cook said, “Somebody’s got to do something about the death penalty and how it affects poor people.” (He advocates life in prison without parole instead of capital punishment.)
Asked how he had survived, he replied, “My innocence carried me through. I channeled my anger, I self-educated myself.”
“I believed in the goodness of human beings,” he added. “Sooner or later, somebody was going to care. Sooner or later, I would come face-to-face with humanity — and I did.”
Randall Beach can be reached at rbeach@nhregister.com or 789-5766.

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