Today, prosecutors in Smith County dropped capital murder charges against Kerry Max Cook, in light of new evidence that severely undermines the case against him – namely, the false testimony of the victim’s married lover. Cook spent 20 years on death row in Texas. He was convicted of killing Linda Jo Edwards in 1977 in Tyler. Facing a fourth death penalty trial in 1999, he accepted an Alford plea (no-contest plea) but has consistently maintained his innocence.
It’s an astounding turn of events in this 40-year-old case.
Michael Hall with Texas Monthly explains that “Cook gets relief under a 2009 Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decision, Chabot, where the court ruled that if a witness lies about a material fact, even if the prosecution didn’t know it was a lie, this is such a major violation of the defendant’s due process rights that he or she is entitled to have the conviction thrown out.”
Apparently, prosecutors plan to oppose Cook’s claim of actual innocence, which would allow him to receive compensation for the two decades he spent on death row. Hall explains the difference between being legally exonerated and “actually innocent”:
Legally, there’s often a difference between the two. Plenty of Americans have been exonerated and freed by filing a writ of habeas corpus and showing that their convictions came about as a result of a violation of their fundamental right to a fair trial—police coerced a confession, prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence. But it’s extremely difficult to go that extra step to prove you are “actually innocent”—the Texas CCA has ruled that the petitioner has to have new evidence that is so powerful that no jury would have convicted him, knowing about it. The gold standard for that new evidence? DNA, which Cook has, along with other new evidence, including crucial facts now revealed by Mayfield’s mendacity and the prosecution’s hiding of evidence.
According to Brandi Grissom with the Dallas Morning News, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ultimately will decide whether to grant Cook’s innocence claim and fully dismiss the charges.
More background on the case is available from the following media outlets: