Judge favors sentence other than death
No legal system is perfect, said Cleburne resident and senior district
judge C.C. "Kit" Cooke.
That includes the one in Maryland being altered to custom-fit that state's
capital murder offenders, he said.
Gov. Martin OMalley said said that this month he will sign into law major
restrictions on when offenders may be sentenced to death.
The death penalty will only be allowed in Maryland when defendants are
linked to the offense through DNA or other biological evidence, videotaped
confessions or videotaped evidence.
It may be the most rigid bundle of limitations on capital murder
punishment in the United States, and it is flawed, Cooke said.
"I don't think it's realistic. You're not going to have a video confession
or video of the act, and you can't tie everything to DNA."
Cooke should know. DNA played a major role in a conviction in a capital
case Cooke tried in Johnson County.
DNA could have played a major role in a case Cooke tried in Fort Worth. It
didn't because no DNA existed.
Cooke tried another capital case in Fort Worth in which DNA did not play a
role at the time, but it did later in related cases.
The three defendants had 2 things in common Cooke presided at their
trials, and they were ultimately executed in Huntsville.
Reginald Perkins was a cold-blooded killer, convicted in 2002 of
strangling his stepmother to death "because she wouldn't give him any
money for gasoline," Cooke said. "I let [the prosecution] do a DNA test on
him because they thought they had some other cases he was good for. He
wasn't, but they later found 2 murders in Illinois he was good for. That
was about 2 weeks before he was executed.
"That was the last capital case I did. It went through the system fairly
quickly. It took about 6 years. Ironically, that was Kevin Rousseau's 1st
capital case as a prosecutor. He's a Cleburne boy."
The Johnson County capital case was air tight.
Bobby Ray Hopkins was convicted in 1994 of stabbing 2 Grandview teenaged
girls to death. DNA plus a confession led to Hopkins' execution in 2004.
"[Hopkins] stabbed them 56 times apiece," Cooke said. "We had DNA and a
confession, even though he fought it and claimed [his arrest] was a racial
thing. That was the first DNA case in Johnson County."
The 3rd case, in which Richard Wayne Jones was convicted and sentenced to
death in Fort Worth in 1987, bothers Cooke to this day.
It contributed to his belief that the death penalty is assessed too
liberally in Texas.
Jones, he said, might have been innocent of the crime for which he was
executed in 2000.
"Richard claimed innocence forever," Cooke said. "To be honest, that's
when I started having some doubts about trying capital murder cases. I
tended to believe his story. The facts were that he'd been to the
penitentiary 2 or 3 times. According to his statement [which Jones said
was coerced], he decided he was going to kill somebody when he got out.
"He set up a crafts store in Arlington. A petite lady came in to buy yarn
so she could knit her brother a sweater. [Jones] picked her out at random.
He took her out and raped her and murdered her, then set her on fire.
"When there's a fire, there is no DNA. So there was no way for the jury to
know if he raped her. The jury convicted him. All the way through his
appeals, he said he was innocent. An author in England [Wendy
Schmid-Eastwood] took up his cause. She wrote a book ["Twisted Truth"]
that exerted a lot of influence. She funded his appeal.
"He had the best lawyers, Jack Strickland and Bill Lane at trial level,
and I appointed Allan Butcher on appeal. All 3 were top-notch lawyers who
had tried people who were guilty.
"Lane especially did not think he was guilty, and Allan had some real
doubts. I got a letter from an inmate saying we were killing the wrong
guy, though you always look at those things with a jaundiced eye.
"The case languished a long time [14 years]. Sharon Wilson was the
prosecutor. She went to Huntsville for the execution. Richard looked at
her and said, 'Sharon Wilson, you're killing the wrong man.'?"
Cooke said he did well by Jones.
"Did I do everything I could? Yeah," he said. "I'm convinced he had the
best lawyers. I did have some doubt [about Jones' guilt]. I would have
been more comfortable if he could have been locked away for life with no
Largely for 2 reasons, capital murder cases have dwindled. The cost of
trying one is prohibitive, and juries now have the option to sentence
defendants to life with no parole.
"The last time I lectured on the subject, a capital trial cost over $3
million," Cooke said. "Well, we can keep a person in prison for life for
about $500,000. Some say it costs too much to keep them locked up, but
that doesn't square. It's a lot cheaper to keep them in a 9 by 6 cell
instead of paying the attorneys' fees and all the other costs that go with
a capital trial. Some counties can't afford it. In Brewster County, the
net tax base wouldnt pay for a capital trial."
Cooke was a young state legislator when the death penalty was abolished in
the early 1970s. He saw the reinstatement of the death penalty in the mid
"I was very pro capital punishment at the time," he said. "I wouldn't take
it off the books now. There are cases that probably deserve it. But
generally speaking, life without parole is more palatable."
Cooke has said as much at legal gatherings.
"I did a lecture for an advanced criminal law course where all the top
lawyers in Texas come together every year," Cooke said. "They had me talk
on the death penalty, and I raised some strong objections to it. That was
the 1st time I know of that a judge had spoken out about it. I look at it
with a little more critical eye than when I started."
What stipulations would Cooke place on capital punishment?
"That's a good question," he said. "I've wrestled with that my entire 34
years on the bench. I can't give you an answer that is foolproof. There is
always going to be a question mark. You can have DNA to tie someone to the
crime, but you still have to decide culpable intent. Did the person intend
to commit the murder? You can't see inside their minds.
"It's not a debate that's going to go away. It's not a flawless system.
You hope there are enough stopgaps in the appellate system that we dont
execute an innocent person."
(source: Cleburne Times-Review)