Kerry Max Cook spent 20 years on death row. His message is clear:
'Being innocent is not enough to save you.'
By Bella English , Globe Staff, 1/25/2003
''Usually, somebody will come up to me [afterward] and say it made them think differently,'' he says.
''The Exonerated,'' which opened at the Wilbur Theatre Tuesday night for a two-week run, uses a stark setting and simple narrative form to tell the stories of six former death-row prisoners who were found innocent and released.
The play, which has also opened in New York and other major cities, has garnered strong reviews for its unadulterated, affecting portrayal of lives nearly lost to the American criminal justice system. It comes at a time when the death penalty is under the microscope: The five young men convicted in the Central Park jogger case have been freed after DNA evidence determined their innocence, and Illinois Governor George Ryan basically shut down the state's death row earlier this month, releasing four prisoners and commuting the sentences of the remaining 164 to life without parole.
The night before he announced the decision, Ryan had seen ''The Exonerated,'' which was playing in Chicago. After the performance, he spoke privately with Cook, who was in the audience watching Richard Dreyfuss play his part. ''I told him to remember the six stories he saw were just part of the real face of the death penalty. I told him there was no way of knowing how many innocent people we've executed in America,'' says Cook, who was 21 years old when he began serving time for rape and murder, and was 41 when he was released in 1999.
While he was in, 141 fellow inmates were executed, and Cook came within days of his own demise. While he was in, Cook's beloved only sibling - his older brother, Doyle - was shot dead defending a friend in a bar brawl. While he was in, Cook's father died of cancer.
Cook lost his mother, too. She still lives in east Texas, but she will not speak to him.
''She accuses me of killing my brother and father,'' he says, looking down at his hands. ''She knows I didn't rape, mutilate, and kill that girl, but she says that I brought shame on the family by hanging out with the wrong people. She has no love for me at all. She said I was executed and I can't come back.''
But Cook has come back from his near-death experience. When he got out, he went to work as a paralegal in Dallas, where he fell in love and got married. He and his wife, Sandra, have a 2-year-old son, Kerry Justice Cook. ''We say that after 23 years, Justice has finally arrived,'' says Cook, who is 45.
A simple message
Now that he's out, his life still revolves around the death penalty and prison. He and his family moved to New York after a ''well-known philanthropist'' saw the play and offered them a place to live. Cook spends his time traveling and speaking out on human rights violations - mainly the death penalty - and promoting the play. He has appeared with Bianca Jagger, Johnny Cochran, and many other celebrities. He says he was put on the waiting list at Bennington College, where he would like to study writing, and will reapply for the fall.
Like the play, his message is simple: ''We're killing innocent people. The play depicts six stories that are the acceptable collateral damage of the death penalty. These are people whose only crime was being poor.''
Cook was perfect fodder for a flawed criminal justice system: a poor kid expelled in the 11th grade after an arrest for ''joy riding'' - in a deputy sheriff's car - in the small town of Jacksonville, Texas. He turned 17 in the county jail. A year later, he got out and went to Dallas, where he worked as a bartender. At his apartment complex, he met Linda Jo Edwards, who invited him over for drinks.
Five days later, Edwards was found raped and murdered, and Cook's fingerprint was found on a patio door. His family scraped together $500 for a defense attorney. After a five-day trial, he was convicted and sent to death row. ''I was 18 and poor and couldn't hire a lawyer to adequately defend me,'' he says. ''Being innocent is not enough to save you.''
One man's trials
Appeals courts granted him three trials because of police and prosecutorial misconduct, including a prison informant who cut a deal with prosecutors and testified that Cook had confessed to Edwards's murder. ''That guy got out early after testifying against me, ended up killing two people, and is now in Missouri doing two life sentences without parole,'' says Cook.
Finally, after pleading no contest on the eve of his fourth murder trial in 1999, Cook was released, though he told the trial judge, ''I would rather be executed than plead guilty to a crime I didn't commit. '' His plea, he stresses, is not an admission of guilt. But if he went to trial again, he knew he'd run the risk of being sent back to death row.
A month later, DNA test results came back, suggesting that Edwards's married boyfriend was the killer.
Cook said that man, called ''Professor Whitfield'' in the play, was dean of library sciences at what is now the University of Texas at Tyler, and Edwards was a library clerk working for him. According to court records, they were having an affair, and she attempted suicide after they broke up. He lost his job, and the two were seen arguing on the day of her murder, June 9, 1977. The man has never been prosecuted.
''He works for the Harris County Sheriff's Department,'' Cook says with a wry smile. He adds: ''When all the dust settled, the only real criminals in the courtroom were the prosecutors.''
Has anyone from the Texas criminal justice system ever apologized to him?
''No, no one ever does,'' he says. But other district attorneys and judges have come up to him after the play and apologized on behalf of ''the system.''
This is what Cook most remembers from his time in a 5-by-9-foot cell: for the first 10 years, his only book was the Bible. ''I read it cover to cover, then I smoked it,'' he says. He didn't have rolling papers or money to buy cigarettes, so he made his own, using the Bible pages. He remembers the men who went to the death chamber. ''Some put up a fight, but most go quietly,'' he says.
And there are indelible reminders - on his skin, and his psyche - of the sexual attacks he suffered behind bars: a crude tattoo of a fairy on one arm, an obscenity carved into his buttocks, both put there by other inmates. He tried to kill himself, more than once.
Cook still has trouble being alone, and nights are the worst, but it is life-affirming that he endured what he endured and didn't emerge in a psychotic rage. Indeed, Cook insists that he is not bitter or angry, despite the fact that he will not receive a cent in reparations from the state of Texas. (''You can't sue in Texas,'' he says flatly.)
''If I was angry, who would listen to me?'' he asks. ''My story would not reach people. I know it's a miracle just to be here.''
Seeing both sides
From death row to national spokesman, Cook must feel as if he has gone through the looking glass. He has seen the play dozens of times, watching stars such as Dreyfuss, Peter Gallagher, Aidan Quinn, and Chad Lowe tell his story. He won't say which one is his favorite. ''I love them all,'' he says diplomatically.
He was in Washington, D.C., for the opening, and was disappointed though not surprised that President Bush didn't attend. ''When he was governor of Texas, he pushed legislation to expedite executions,'' he says. ''That's why we lead the nation in executions. It's a `kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out' mentality.''
As a brother of a murder victim, he says, he can relate to both sides of the death penalty argument. For a long time, he hoped his brother's killer would be put to death. ''He murdered my brother,'' he says. ''I wanted him to die. But I came to realize that as long as we have the death penalty, there is no protection from errors in a human-operated system. How many innocent people have to die so we can give in to anger?''
As it turns out, his brother's killer served only three years in prison.
This story ran on page G1 of the Boston Globe on 1/25/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.