Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Years after being freed from death row, East Texas man fights to clear name

Kerry Max Cook
Kerry Max Cook
AUSTIN — Nearly 40 years after Linda Jo Edwards was murdered and mutilated in her Tyler apartment, the man convicted of the crime — and almost executed for it — wants to be exonerated, based on new DNA tests.

Lawyers for Kerry Max Cook, who Smith County prosecutors contend killed Edwards in a perverse rage in June 1977, filed documents Monday urging the court to declare the former death row inmate innocent. They argue that six rounds of extensive DNA testing from 1999 through 2015 failed to identify any evidence that Cook was at the scene of the crime.

Instead, the tests confirmed the presence of semen from Edwards’ former lover, a longtime suspect in the case and a dean at the local university whose extramarital affair with the young woman had ended badly, the lawyers say.

In a separate motion filed Monday, the lawyers also asked Smith County state district Judge Christi Kennedy to recuse herself from overseeing the case. They allege that Kennedy is too closely tied to prosecutors the courts have said engaged in misconduct to win Cook’s conviction, including suppressing evidence and securing false testimony.

The saga has been the most high-profile case in small Smith County’s history. It’s resulted in three lengthy trials, books and movies, and worldwide attention.

Cook and his lawyers, including Barry Scheck from the New York-based Innocence Project, declined to comment, referring to the legal documents filed in court.

Mike West, an assistant Smith County district attorney, said he hadn’t had time Monday afternoon to review the latest filings in the decades-old case.

“We’re going to look at it and give it a serious look,” West said.

Cook was convicted in 1978 of stabbing and beating Edwards to death in a sexual frenzy, and he was sentenced to die. He maintained that he was innocent, and the guilty verdict was overturned. A second trial produced a mistrial, and a third trial sent Cook back to death row.

An appeals court threw out that verdict, too, finding prosecutors had engaged in “pervasive” and “egregious” misconduct. In 1999, just days before what would have been Cook’s fourth trial, Smith County prosecutors offered him a no-contest plea deal that allowed him to be released from prison. Cook didn’t admit the crime but remained guilty in the eyes of the law.

Cook has been out of prison since then. He’s married and has a young son, and they’ve traveled the world to tell his story. But the conviction hangs over Cook, preventing him from voting and making it difficult to find work. He’s hoping the new evidence will finally clear his name.

Before Cook accepted the 1999 plea deal, prosecutors had sought DNA testing on semen found in Edwards’ underwear. Cook took the deal before the results came back, but the report eventually showed that the semen belonged to James Mayfield, Edwards’ boss and former lover.

Mayfield has never been charged in relation to the crime, and prosecutors have said the DNA testing doesn’t mean Cook is innocent. Efforts to reach Mayfield and his former lawyer for this report were unsuccessful. In the past, he has denied any role in the crime.

In 2012, Cook asked for a new round of more advanced DNA testing on the underwear and other evidence at the crime scene, including the murder weapon and a hair found on Edwards’ body.

Lawyers discovered, though, that an investigator in the case had taken the knife used in the murder home for “field testing.” They also learned that the state destroyed the hair just after lawmakers, in 2001, approved a statute that allowed inmates access to DNA evidence in their case files that might help prove their innocence.

The knife, the underwear and dozens of other items collected from the crime scene were tested. None of the testing matched Cook’s DNA, according to lawyers. The only match, they said, was an even more conclusive finding that the skin and sperm cells in Edwards’ panties belonged to Mayfield.

Source: Dallas Morning News, Brandi Grissom, September 15, 2015

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