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District Attorney Drops Conviction Against Man Who Spent 20 Years on Death Row

Since 1977, prosecutors have said Kerry Max Cook raped, murdered and mutilated Linda Jo Edwards. On Monday, they set aside the conviction following claims of misconduct and DNA evidence tying another man to the crime.

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The Smith County District Attorney's office on Monday agreed to set aside Kerry Max Cook's conviction in an almost 40-year-old murder case, but he is still fighting to claim his innocence.

Prosecutors have said since 1977 that Cook, who spent 20 years on death row, raped, murdered and mutilated Linda Jo Edwards, a claim he has vehemently denied. The state argued at trial that Cook was aroused by a cat-torture scene from a movie he was watching on television and then chose to attack Edwards. To make their case, prosecutors pointed to Cook's fingerprints from Edwards' apartment and testimony from a jailhouse snitch who said Cook admitted to the murder and a witness who was with him as the movie played.

The reversal is a striking outcome in one of the most tortured legal sagas in Texas, in which prosecutors' decades-long faith in Cook's guilt was ultimately undermined by DNA evidence tying another man to the crime, discredited testimony and claims of prosecutorial and police misconduct.

Monday's action only clears Cook of his murder conviction; Cook has long maintained that he should be fully exonerated.

Cook's attorney, Gary Udashen, declined to comment Monday, as did the Smith County district attorney's office.

Cook was first convicted and sentenced to death in 1978, but the verdict was overturned. A second trial in 1992 resulted in a mistrial, and a third one in 1994 ended with a new guilty verdict and death sentence. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals tossed out that second verdict two years later and the sentence, saying at the time that “prosecutorial and police misconduct has tainted this entire matter from the outset.”

Prosecutors were prepared to make its case a fourth time in 1999 but struck a plea deal with Cook, allowing him to avoid more prison time and death row. Cook didn't have to say he killed Edwards, but he technically remained a murderer in the eyes of the state.

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