DALLAS (AP) — A judge on Monday dismissed murder charges against a man who had been on death row after he was convicted in the 1977 slaying of a 21-year-old woman in East Texas and sentenced to death.
State District Court Judge Jack Carter approved an agreement between prosecutors and attorneys for Kerry Max Cook to throw out the charges. Cook has been free since 1999 and has spent decades seeking a full exoneration.
It was determined that Cook's rights were violated, in part by the presentation of false testimony by a witness called at his original trial, according to the judge's order. Prosecutors at the time also suppressed a taped interview with a manager at the apartment complex where Linda Jo Edwards was killed that would have helped Cook's defense, the order said.
Attorneys representing Cook had argued that six rounds of DNA testing from 1999 to 2015 failed to identify any evidence proving he was at the scene of the crime.
Monday's ruling sends the matter to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals where Cook will seek a full exoneration. If that's granted, Cook could be eligible for more than $3 million in compensation from the state, plus additional benefits, for the 20 years he was imprisoned, according to The Dallas Morning News. He now lives in New Jersey.
Cook was convicted in 1978 in the slaying of Edwards in her Tyler apartment and was sentenced to death. Cook maintained his innocence and the verdict was overturned, but legal wrangling continued for decades.
The DNA testing confirmed the presence of semen found in Edwards' underwear from James Mayfield, her boss and former lover whose extramarital affair with Edwards ended badly, the lawyers contend.
Although Mayfield was considered a longtime suspect in the case, he's never been charged in relation to the crime. Mayfield couldn't be reached for comment but he has denied any role in Edwards' killing in the past. A call to his attorney was not immediately returned Monday.
Court documents Monday indicate the case took a turn in April when authorities interviewed Mayfield again and granted him immunity from prosecution.
Mayfield had previously testified and claimed in various interviews with authorities that he and Edwards had ended an affair three weeks before her death. But he acknowledged in April that the couple had had sex the day before she was killed. Mayfield's admission amounted to false testimony, according to court records.
Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham on Monday declined to discuss the matter. "It's still pending in front of the court so I'm going to reserve any statements," he said.
Cook could not be reached for comment and a message left for his attorney was not returned.
Texas has executed 537 inmates since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, far more than any other state, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.
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