Forty years ago in Smith County, Texas, 21-year-old Linda Jo Edwards was found sexually assaulted and murdered in her apartment.
Kerry Max Cook was a young guy staying in the same apartment complex as Edwards, and he was pinned with her murder.
Despite Edwards being intimately involved with a 44-year-old husband and father named James Mayfield, police arrested and charged Cook.
During the investigation into the murder, Dr. James Grigson, a psychologist, crafted a description, or profile, of who the killer was; because Cook allegedly fit that profile, he spent the next twenty years of his life on death row, but always maintaining his innocence.
Cook was exonerated of the murder in 2016, but, as of yet, the state hasn’t granted him “actual innocence,” which would permit him to receive payments for time incarcerated. Even though by Texas law he is still a convicted killer, his death sentence has twice been overturned.
The problem with being exonerated and not being granted actual innocence is that while you are theoretically free, in the eyes of the law you are still a convicted felon. Signing a lease, applying for certain jobs, and otherwise run-of-the-mill activities, become an obstacle.
In 1988, just 11 days before his scheduled execution, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Texas court to review his conviction, three years later he was granted a new trial. Then, when Smith County re-tried him in 1992 it ended in a mistrial, but on the third attempt in 1994, his case ended with a guilty verdict and a death sentence. However, two years later this conviction was reversed by the Court of Criminal Appeals citing “prosecutorial and police misconduct” as a factor in the case.
In 1997 Cook was released on bail to prepare for his fourth trial.
Given the option to plead guilty in exchange for 20-years of time served, Cook refused. During jury selection just ahead of the 1999 trial, he was given one more chance by the Smith County District Attorney.
If he were to plead no-contest (not admitting guilt), he would be free to go. Considering all that he had been through, Cook took the deal, however, since he pleaded “no-contest” actual innocence wasn’t granted.
Shortly after the plea, DNA testing came back showing that the DNA found on Edwards’ underwear was Mayfield’s, not Cook’s.
“I lost on ‘actual innocence’ on the lower court hearing last year because the truth of my innocence was buried underneath consistent history of 40 years of Smith County lying and making up ‘evidence’ to support guilt”
Additionally, informant testimony from a fellow inmate was later debunked when it was determined to be the result of a deal with prosecutors. An investigation would reveal the testimony of James Mayfield turned out to be a lie, and the prosecutor suppressed evidence that would have justified why a fingerprint from Cook was found in Edwards’ apartment.
All of these years, Mayfield had maintained that the last time he and Edwards were intimate was three weeks before her murder, allowing the prosecution to exclude him as a suspect. But, in an interview in 2016, for the first time in nearly 40 years, Mayfield admitted that the two had sex on June 8th, the day before her murder.
Additionally, Mayfield said he had not seen her the night of the murder, but a police report that had been withheld from Cook’s defense lawyers included a statement from Edwards’ roommate who claimed to have seen Mayfield in Edwards’ room the night of the murder.
The uncovering of this lie paved the way for Cook’s exoneration.
Last year, Cook had an actual innocence hearing in a Smith County District Court. He recently told Restore Justice USA:
“I lost on ‘actual innocence’ on the lower court hearing last year because the truth of my innocence was buried underneath consistent history of 40 years of Smith County lying and making up ‘evidence’ to support guilt.”
Now Cook is seeking actual innocence. This would allow him to receive over $3 million in compensation from the state for his wrongful conviction as well as to finally clear his name and allow him to put this torturous ordeal behind him.
“I am now asking the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to overrule the District Judge and declare me actually innocent. A decision should come anytime now.”