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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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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…

Former death row inmate Kerry Max Cook fires lawyers, threatens to undo exoneration deal

Kerry Max Cook (center) and his team of lawyers
Kerry Max Cook (center) and his team of lawyers
Two days after his legal team secured an agreement that could lead to his exoneration in a high-profile 40-year-old murder case, former death row inmate Kerry Max Cook fired the very lawyers who set him on a path that could finally clear his name.

In a series of Facebook missives and incensed email screeds, Cook accused lawyers from the New York-based Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of Texas of betraying him by accepting a deal with Smith County prosecutors that he never agreed to. Cook maintains that the deal lets prosecutors escape accountability for years of repeated misconduct that kept him behind bars and nearly resulted in his death.

Now, the 60-year-old former inmate says he plans to represent himself in court and prove to both the judge and Smith County prosecutors that he didn't brutally kill Linda Jo Edwards in 1977.

"I am completely devastated by what has been done wirh [sic] my 40 year struggle for truth & justice," Cook wrote in an email to his former lawyers. "This corporate take-over of the truth of my story has left me still publicly convicted and the district attorneys office exonerated."

It's the latest strange twist in a case that has been marked by continued oddities over 4 decades.

Cook was convicted in 1978 in the gruesome slaying of Edwards, a 22-year-old who was found beaten, stabbed and mutilated in her Tyler apartment bedroom. Through 3 trials that courts said were tainted with prosecutor misconduct, 20 years on death row and even since his release in 1999, Cook has maintained his innocence. DNA tests also have revealed the DNA of another man - Edwards' married lover - on the panties she wore the night of her death.

Smith County prosecutors, however, remain resolute that Cook is guilty. Last week, they agreed to drop the murder charges only after a key witness admitted he lied during Cook's trials. Cook's lawyers struck a deal with Matt Bingham, the Smith County district attorney, in which they agreed to drop claims of misconduct by previous prosecutors in exchange for the state dismissing the long-standing murder charges. Bingham, however, said he would continue to oppose Cook's claims of actual innocence, which would allow him to receive compensation for the 2 decades he spent on death row.

A hearing on the actual innocence claim is scheduled for June 29.

In court last week, Cook told the judge that he had agreed to the deal, which would require final approval from the state's highest criminal court.

But in dramatic emails and Facebook posts in the days after the hearing, Cook said that agreement "exonerated" the prosecutors who helped secure his wrongful conviction. He accused his lawyers of bullying him into taking the deal and said he would rather die than accept it.

Cook ordered Innocence Project lawyers who have helped exonerate hundreds of inmates in Texas and across the country to withdraw from the case. He wants the agreement he signed with Smith County prosecutors nullified. And he has vowed to represent himself going forward, a move many equate with legal suicide.

"This stress may kill me," Cook wrote in an email Saturday to his former lawyers. "But as I have told you repeatedly during the course of your representation if [sic] me, some things are worth dying for and the truth about how I wound up on Texas death row completely innocent in a case that has become known as the worst case in America, is one of them."

Even if a court were to rule that prosecutors engaged in misconduct in Cook's case - a move that is rare - it's unclear what consequences, if any, the former state lawyers might face.

In unusual, high-profile cases like those of Michael Morton and Anthony Graves, the prosecutors who oversaw their wrongful convictions were punished by the State Bar of Texas. But under state law, complaints like those must be filed within 4 years of an innocent person's release from prison. Cook was released in 1999.

Innocence Project lawyers said they made the agreement with Cook's best interests in mind and an eye toward securing his exoneration. Nonetheless, they agreed to withdraw from the case.

"It is our firm belief that Kerry is innocent of this murder and that he has finally received justice and a recognition from Smith County that his prosecution was based on false testimony and he never had a fair trial," Innocence Project lawyers said in an emailed statement. "The attorneys who have worked on Kerry's behalf for many years hope that whatever course of action he ultimately pursues will end in his complete exoneration."

Bingham declined to comment.

George Kendall, a defense lawyer who has represented inmates who spent decades behind bars, including former Texas death row inmate Delma Banks, said it's not unusual for those who've spent years in prison to have rocky relationships with their lawyers.

"Having gone through what he's gone through," Kendall said, "it would surely be understandable for him to have some real problems trusting people connected with the criminal justice system."

But, he said, Cook should reconsider his plan to represent himself in court.

"Our legal system makes resolution of the kind of case Kerry has much more difficult than it needs to be," Kendall said. "The issues involved in his case are complicated and they are tricky."

Source: Dallas Morning News, June 15, 2016

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