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Texas Justice: 22 Years on Death Row

By       Message WILLIAM FISHER     Permalink
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An increasing number of headlines these days seem to start the same way: Joe Smith, wrongfully convicted of murder in 1989, walked out of prison today, a free man after more than two decades on Death Row.  

That's the good news. The double-whammy of bad news is that thousands of wrongfully convicted men and women are serving long sentences for crimes they did not commit -- and at least one of these free men is not really free. Which doesn't make putting his shattered life back together any piece of cake.  

He is Kerry Max Cook, 56, whom Texas still considers a convicted murderer. Cook was convicted of the 1977 raping and murdering Linda Jo Edwards in Tyler, Tex. He's had three trials: a first conviction that was reversed, a hung jury outcome in a second trial, and a third conviction that was overturned because it was found to be tainted by prosecutorial misconduct.  

Prosecutorial Misconduct: A phrase you will find many times in this article.  

While Smith County was considering a fourth trial for Cook, he entered into an unusual plea bargain. In 1999, under a bizarre Texas law, he pleaded "no contest" -- neither an admission of guilt nor a profession of innocence -- and walked out of jai  

DNA tests on the victim's clothes eventually shone light on   another man's biological matter.   

To Texas lawmen, however, Cook is a convicted murderer -- no more, no less. Which means he is usually unable to find steady employment and experience the normal, everyday life of a non-felon.  

"Thirteen years after his release, Mr. Cook is battling with Smith County prosecutors to officially clear his name. This freedom means nothing with a conviction," said Cook. He is seeking new DNA testing to establish his innocence.   .

Cook's anger-making story is part of a landmark report from the National Registry of Exonerations. The new institution, a partnership between the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, reveals that more than 2,000 wrongfully convicted individuals have been exonerated nationally since 1989.  

The Texas Tribune has published a report by Brandi Grisssom, analyzing Texas cases involving prosecutorial misconduct but where the state bar has failed to take any action against the lawyers.   

The item opens:  

"In 91 criminal cases in Texas since 2004, the courts decided that prosecutors committed misconduct, ranging from hiding evidence to making improper arguments to the jury, according to data that the Innocence Project will release today. None of those prosecutors has ever been disciplined."  

The Tribune noted, "It paints a bleak picture about what's going on with accountability and prosecutors," said Cookie Ridolfi, founder of the Northern California Innocence Project, who researched misconduct data in Texas and other states."
In Texas, Ridolfi told the Trib, she found only one instance in which a prosecutor was publicly disciplined, and it took place before the time period her group studied. Terry McEachern, who prosecuted the infamous Tulia drug cases in which black defendants were convicted of drug charges concocted by a rogue investigator, received a two-year probated suspension of his law license in 2005 and a $6,225 fine.

Key Findings from the Report:  

Snapshot figures of the 873 exonerated defendants:     

93% are men, 7% women; 50% are black, 38% white, 11% Hispanic and 2% Native American or Asian; 37% were exonerated with the help of DNA evidence; 63% without DNA; as a group, they spent more than 10,000 years in prison -- an average of more than 11 years each.  

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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