Breaking the Frame in East Texas

Kerry Max Cook was sentenced to death twice in a notorious and bizarre 1977 murder case, but he hopes DNA evidence will convince courts to finally exonerate him.


Kerry Max Cook spent more than 20 years on Texas’ death row, and came within days of being put to death for a crime that DNA evidence has shown he did not commit. Though Cook maintained his innocence through three trials, two of which ended in death sentences, one hung jury, and finally a plea deal that set him free but still considered guilty, in September he filed a writ of habeas corpus in Tyler, Texas, seeking complete exoneration of the crime.

In order to win on the writ of habeas corpus, Cook must show that he has new evidence showing that if a jury were to look at the case today, they’d surely find him not guilty.

Cook and his lawyers from the Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of Texas, lay out a compelling argument through the use of DNA that Cook was not just innocent, but that another man was actually guilty of the crime.

It was June 9, 1977, when Linda Jo Edwards was brutally raped, murdered, and prosecutors say sexually mutilated in the apartment she was sharing with a friend. That friend, Paula Rudolph, saw a man in the doorway of Edwards’ room that night and identified him to police as Edward’s married ex-boyfriend, James Mayfield, a man Rudolph knew well. After all, Rudolph had worked for him at the local university, as did Edwards—as his secretary.

Rudolph found Edwards body the next morning. It was a savage scene. Edwards’ head was bashed in with a statue, her face unrecognizable. She had multiple stab wounds and her sex organs had been taken as a souvenir, inside a missing pair of panty hose, the prosecution would later assert.

A month prior to Edwards’ murder, Mayfield had left his wife to be with her. He rented an apartment at the same complex where Edwards would be killed four weeks later. But, Mayfield changed his mind. He told Edwards that he was ending their affair and going back to his wife (though he filed for divorce that same day). Ms. Edwards was so distraught that she attempted suicide and left a suicide note. Mayfield found her, destroyed the note and quietly took her to the hospital. But word got out about the long-standing affair and both were forced to resign from their jobs. Mayfield, colleagues said in depositions, never forgave Edwards for ruining his career.

In fact, one former co-worker, Ann White, said in court documents that Mayfield and she sat in a car outside Edwards’ apartment on the day her body was found, watching the police gather evidence and the media gather. She said Mayfield “began crying” but had a “sudden mood change” becoming visibly “angry” and complaining that Edwards had ruined his career. He had been forced to resign his position at the university just three days before Edwards’ murder.

In the 24-hour period leading up to Edwards’ murder, Mayfield and Edwards would meet several times, according to depositions given by friends and colleagues of both Mayfield and Edwards, with many testifying that Mayfield was angry that Edwards had decided to move on and begin dating other men, and that Edwards had openly voiced that she was afraid of Mayfield.

One particular colleague of Mayfield’s, Dr. Frederick Mears, said he was “shocked” when he found a book that Mayfield had ordered that depicted sexual crimes almost exactly like those that Edwards had suffered. In addition, Mears stated in an affidavit that Mayfield came to him seeking ways he could deceive a polygraph, knowing that Mears had written a paper on how to do just that. Mears also stated that he caught Mayfield rifling through Edwards calendar and desk a day after Edward’s murder.

Despite all these witness statements, the Tyler police never seriously looked at Mayfield as a suspect. In fact, after Mayfield learned he was no longer a suspect, he bragged to former colleague Ann White, “No matter how serious the trouble you’re in, you can get out of almost anything if you have enough money.”

Smith County Justice

Kerry Max Cook was an easy target for Tyler police. A 21-year-old bartender, Cook had no money. He did have a record, though not a violent one. And his fingerprint was on Linda Jo Edwards’ patio door. This was easy enough to explain away. They lived in the same apartment complex and the two had met at the pool. She had, in fact, invited him into her apartment days earlier. So, based on one fingerprint, and a lot of what the Court of Criminal Appeals would later call prosecutorial and police misconduct, Cook was arrested, charged and eventually convicted of the murder of Linda Jo Edwards.

Cook would endure three separate capital murder trials, spend 22 years on death row, be tortured and raped by other inmates, attempted suicide twice before he eventually would meet Gary Udashen, of the Innocence Project of Texas, who was willing to look at his case. Not only had the prosecution kept key grand jury witness testimony from the defense and offered a jailhouse snitch a reduced sentence to lie about Cook, Udashen learned that prosecutors had hidden key DNA results, as well as destroyed evidence.

In fact, in 1996 the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the third murder conviction, stating that egregious prosecutorial and police misconduct “had tainted this entire matter from the outset.” Cook would be tried for an unprecedented fourth time.

As the years passed and DNA testing became more reliable, the state successfully postponed the start of Cook’s trial to conduct DNA testing on a hair sample left on Edward’s buttock and a semen stain cut from her panties. So sure of the DNA testing, Smith County Assistant DA told Dallas Morning News reporter David Hanners that the DNA “could only have been left by the killer.”

On the eve of the trial, the state was ready to make a deal with Cook. Plead guilty and serve 20 more years for the murder. Cook said no; he was innocent. On the morning of the trial, the state had another offer—plead no contest and walk with time served. Cook, who naturally feared facing a Smith County jury for the fourth time, took the deal and walked out of the courthouse that day a free man.

But, as Cook states in the writ, he really is not a free man. He cannot vote or run for public office. He cannot own a firearm or even sign a lease. Now, Cook is seeking complete exoneration from the court based on the fact that the DNA evidence that the prosecution was so relying on in the 1999 court case, is, in fact, evidence that another man, James Mayfield, is the really killer of Linda Jo Edwards.

The DNA evidence is the bulk of the writ of habeas corpus. The DNA that ADA David Dobbs was so excited about, telling reporter Hanners that it “could only have been left by the killer,” came back without a trace of Cook’s DNA. It did, however, match James Mayfield. Dobbs dismissed the DNA as “irrelevant.”

In the writ, the Innocence Project asks the court to look at 15 crime scene items, none of which have Cook’s DNA on them, but do have the DNA of James Mayfield. In fact, the seminal stain on the panties yielded a DNA profile shared by Mayfield and the male donor on the samples tested are shared by just 1 in 3.112 trillion and 1 in 10.07 billion unrelated Caucasians—i.e. fewer than one such individual out of the entire current population on earth.

Unfortunately, not all the crime scene items are available for the court’s perusal. Apparently, former District Attorney Jack Skeen, now District Judge, appointed to the bench by Gov. Rick Perry, ordered some evidence to be destroyed and gave some evidence away. Among the items he gave away was the actual murder weapon. And among the item destroyed was the hair found on Edwards’ buttock that ADA Dobbs declared, “could only be that of the killers.“

Almost four decades after Linda Jo Edwards’ murder, both she and Cook are still seeking justice.

Carol Countryman is a journalist in Tool, Texas.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2015

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