Monday, March 05, 2012

Piling on the Tyler Morning Telegraph over cretinous murder-case coverage

Having mentioned the other day that Kerry Max Cook is seeking post-conviction DNA testing he hopes will formally exonerate him, and that local prosecutors were blasting him for it in the press, Grits wanted to point out some keen commentary by former Dallas Morning News reporter David Hanners, the journalist who first uncovered problems with Cook's conviction. Texas Monthly's Michael Hall wrote a notable blog post titled "What the 'Tyler Morning Telegraph' failed to tell you about Kerry Max Cook," and Hanners replied with this remarkable comment (edited only to break it into more readable paragraphs).
As the reporter for The Dallas Morning News whose stories initially raised doubts about Mr. Cook’s guilt, I believe I have a few observations I can offer to the discussion. The first would be that when it comes to Mr. Cook’s saga — and there’s no other word for it — the Tyler Morning Telegraph has never acquitted itself well. I’m usually hesitant to disparage another journalist or publication, but the Tyler paper’s history of coverage in this case has been a sad entry in the annals of objective and fair journalism. The paper has, time after time, taken the word of local police and prosecutors as gospel in Mr. Cook’s case and has done little, if any, real journalism. And, as the record reflects time after time, the word of police and prosecutors in this case has not been worth much.

I am probably one of the few people who has taken an objective look at Mr. Cook’s case. I wasn’t out to convict him and I wasn’t out to set him free. When I began looking into his case, it was to try and get an answer to a very simple question: Why did it take the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals nearly eight years to rule in his case? (As I would later find out, it was because the court basically lost the file.) Whether he was guilty or innocent really wasn’t an issue to me. But as I sat in the basement of the Supreme Court Building reading his trial transcript and looking through the exhibits, it became increasingly evident to me that, at the very least, Mr. Cook had not received a fair trial and, at may well have been innocent. The record (and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, eventually) has proven the former, and I am firmly convinced of the latter. I just don’t believe he killed Linda Jo Edwards.

In discussing this case with others, I have often described it as Murphy’s Law personified. Everything that could go wrong, did. The initial police investigation was hopelessly incompetent and relied on pseudo-science that was bad even for 1976. The police just didn’t do what a basic police investigation would have or could have done. (To underscore that fact — and this is directed at “Kelly”[another TM commenter] — Ms. Edwards had indeed been married and divorced. I have the records and I’ve spoken to her ex-husband. At the time of the murder, he was in the military out on the east coast, and detectives made the trip out to interview him. In a bit of irony, the detectives couldn’t be bothered to head out to the university to interview Mr. Mayfield or Ms. Edwards’ co-workers. When those co-workers complained to the police about not being talked to, the detectives went out to the school and basically waited for people to come to them — in full view of Mr. Mayfield.)

As another example of the utter ineptitude of the police investigation, consider the “missing” sock. As those conversant with the case know, police said they found only one sock at the scene, and so the prosecution turned that “theft” into one of the elements making it a capital murder case and the description they offered at Mr. Cook’s trial was quite graphic: After killing Ms. Edwards, the killer allegedly cut out body parts and stuffed them in the sock and took them as “trophies” of his kill. Imagine if you’re a member of the jury and you hear that and it is never refuted by the defense. Well, no body parts were ever taken, and when the jurors in the first re-trial had the evidence back in the jury room, they opened the evidence bag containing Ms. Edwards’ jeans, pulled out out the pants and held them up. Out dropped the “missing” sock. The cops were too incompetent to even find a sock in a pant leg. That type of conduct permeates the police investigation, so it is legitimate to question how anyone can have any faith in it. Still, the “he-took-body-parts-in-a-sock” bit remains part of the accepted mythology surrounding this case.

I’ve covered many murder cases over the years and realize that often they come down to circumstantial evidence. But even the circumstantial evidence in this case had to be stretched and in some cases fabricated to win a conviction. And Mr. Cook’s initial defense team did little to nothing in the way of investigation, or at least the type of investigation you’d like to see in a capital murder case.

Over the years, I have developed my own theory and belief into who killed Ms. Edwards, and it is a theory that fits the available evidence (direct and circumstantial) and is not inconsistent with those factors. I’ll not share that theory here, but suffice to say that it doesn’t involve Mr. Cook. Not to put too fine a point on it — and this is something I’ve spoken to him about, so he knows what I’m about to say — but Mr. Cook was not a good enough criminal or a lucky enough criminal to have committed a crime of this fury and magnitude and NOT leave a ton of evidence. He was young, immature and just didn’t think that far ahead. As “iffy” as fingerprints can be, he could not have committed this crime and not left bloody fingerprints everywhere in that apartment.

I also wish to speak to the DNA evidence and the way the prosecution has handled it. I clearly remember Mr. Dobbs telling me, prior to the testing, that they were excited about the prospects of a test because the semen sample “could only have been left by the killer.” Those were his exact words to me and I remember him saying it as if it were yesterday. So then the sample is tested and, lo and behold, it belongs to someone other than Mr. Cook. Suddenly, the prosecution’s story changes. So now the prosecution says, “Well, of course it was somebody else. But Mr. Cook is still the killer.” That last point is emblematic of how the police and prosecution have behaved over the lifetime of this case. They have wanted to have it both ways. When they claimed the evidence said one thing, they claimed it pointed to Mr. Cook’s guilt, but when it was demonstrated or proven that the evidence said the exact opposite of what they claimed, they said it still proved Mr. Cook’s guilt.

Absent confessions from the guilty parties, I doubt we’ll ever know for sure what happened to Ms. Edwards. The investigation was so screwed up that it can’t be trusted and there’s no way to go back in time and fix that. You don’t get a do-over when it comes to collecting evidence from the scene of a 1976 crime. Mr. Cook deserves more than what the system has given him. For that matter, Ms. Edwards deserves more than what the system has given her. She, like Mr. Cook and justice itself, deserves the truth, and we do them all a disservice by perpetuating the lies that led to this abhorrent conviction.
Well-said; you can see how Mr. Hanners had the writing chops to win a Pulitzer. He and Michael Hall couldn't be more right about the Tyler Morning Telegraph, and this case isn't the only time the paper has demonstrated such shortcomings.

BTW, among attorneys doing innocence work, there's a phrase for the situation where prosecutors insist only the rapist and/or killer could have left the DNA, then change their theory of the case after exculpatory results come back vindicating the person they've accused, as happened in Mr. Cook's case: They're basically alleging there was an "unindicted co-ejaculator." Usually once you reach that point, the defense has already won the substantive debate and the prosecution just hasn't realized it yet, or won't admit it. But you'd expect the local newspaper to be able to figure it out.


Anonymous said...

Hurray for a journalist with chops!

I often wonder about "free press".

Any journalist could do a little research and uncover a ton of info about the injustice system, hold some officials to the fire and take back the will of the people. The problems are fairly well documented, it is just a matter of taking out the trash.

Most articles are regurgitated, requiring no legwork by the journalist. Are they just lazy? Do they fear retribution? Are there policies forbidding investigation, only printing the "satus quo"? Scarier still, is the press under the control of the government, directly or indirectly?

Scott here has done a fine job compiling TX injustice issues, taken some heat, and some change has occurred.

But really the TX injustice system is a microcosm of bigger problems in the USA. Special interests and the agenda of the few are the enforced law, and directly opposed to the will of the people. Change will come about as the direct result of brave journalists, willing to go where men and women have not dared look and take it to the people. Well informed people are in a much better position to grow some chops and execute change.

Anonymous said...

ialyThe American Criminal Injustice System By Dr. Paul Craig Roberts / Mar 14, 2009
Karen Heller: A messed-up justice system Jun. 9, 2008
The American Way of Justice by Alex Massie, 1st July 2011
“The United States is a wonderful country but its courts and prisons are a disgrace that shames America's pretensions to civilisation, decency and any elementary definition of justice.“
And so on . .

alex wukman said...

I'd like to start off by stating that this is not a defense of the Tyler Morning Telegraph's abdication of duty, merely an outsider's informed guess of why it happened. I'm a journalist who worked in a small rural area for three years and my time out there showed me just how common it is for news organizations to function as the propaganda arm of the prosecution.

The rationalizations I heard for parroting the law enforcement line ranged from simple expediency--i.e. a lack of resources such as manpower or time--to reducing legal liability--trying to perform an independent investigation of a crime can open up a paper to a lawsuit whereas Texas courts have ruled that relying on information from law enforcement agencies is protected.

However, the most common reason was the need for repeated access. The reality of small town journalism is that a newspaper functions as little more than a crime blotter, and being able to get information from the sheriff's office, the police department or the DA for the next edition is more important than fact checking the prosecution's case. I'm not saying it's right, just that's how it is.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, Alex, in the case of the Tyler paper it goes much further than the reasons you mention. The Tyler paper has never reported many of the details of the Cook case while many other news organiztions, mostly outside of Smith County have. Jack Skeen, former DA, now judge, controls the Smith County political machine. The Tyler paper is part of that machine. They do all they can to promote Skeen and his cronys while suppressing information that Skeen doesn't want reported. They ran another story on the case recently (although it was mostly a cut and past of the last one). There were some comments made by people who think Cook is innocent. The paper deleted these comments, leaving only those saying he's guilty.

Anonymous said...

My name is Kerry Max Cook and I was wrongly convicted only because of the worst case of documented police and prosecutorial misconduct imaginable. Smith County prosecutors Jack Skeen and David Dobbs took me all the way to the execution chamber until finally, the United States Supreme Court stopped them. Much is being said and circulated by David Dobbs and the Smith County propaganda machine that is outright false and not based on any facts or records. It's Just a libelous smear campaign of lies. I post the actual motions my lawyers filed in Smith County, sworn and notarized under penalty of perjury here. If you are interested in the truth -- the whole truth - - click below and read.

Anonymous said...

David Dobbs has a poor record