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On August 5, 1977, Kerry Max Cook, 20 years old, reported to work in Port Arthur, Texas, where he tended bar at an upscale club. Police officers swooped in to arrest him. When he heard the words “rape” and “murder,” Cook told the arresting officers and the detectives who later interrogated him that it must be a mistake. Although he was a troubled young man, Cook had never committed a violent crime. As is often true in cases where the arrested person is innocent, Cook irritated police and prosecutors with his protestations. They did not listen to him. They should have. Some miscarriages of justice never fail to shock, no matter how many times the saga is repeated. The wrongful arrest of Cook for a rape and murder 30 years ago, followed by a wrongful conviction, still shocks. In fact, Cook’s personal account — which he vividly describes in Chasing Justice: My Story of Freeing Myself After Two Decades on Death Row for a Crime I Didn’t Commit — makes his powerful story vivid. For 300 pages, readers see police detectives and sheriffs and prosecutors and judges and jurors and prison guards and fellow inmates either misperceive evidence or manufacture it. I know of only two books in which a wrongfully convicted person wrote about his own case; these sorts of stories usually come from journalists or defense lawyers. When arrested, Cook was just 20 years old, not well schooled, and naive in many ways despite being a bit of a petty criminal — as a teenager, he had run away from home and had stolen cars for joy rides. He is not a smooth writer. Still, the book is plenty clear. The degradation suffered by Cook, as he tells it, is almost impossible to describe. It is disgusting that so many men sworn to uphold the law — police, prosecutors, jail guards, judges — discarded the presumption of innocence and treated Cook like a piece of trash. Yet wrongful convictions are more common than most people realize. Much of my career as an investigative reporter has been spent studying and sometimes writing about them. The Cook case, however, is legendary because it dragged on so long, because Cook almost ended up executed by the state of Texas, because the misbehavior of police and prosecutors was so egregious, because none of them suffered punishment for their wrongdoing, and because, as the true nature of the case became clear, the almost-certain killer (named by Cook) escaped arrest. The probable killer was a highly educated married man with a mean streak who had been the victim’s work supervisor and lover. That is another tragedy to wrongful convictions: The real perpetrator is free to enjoy life, perhaps to strike again. Yet in case after case in Texas and around the nation, police and prosecutors allow the real perpetrators to remain at liberty, even as it becomes clear that the arrest logic is faulty. It certainly made no sense from the start to arrest Cook. The only explanation for the mistake in this case and so many others is the overwhelming desire of police and prosecutors to impress their constituencies with a quick collar. As in most wrongful-conviction cases, this one is complicated by a number of factors, including a lie Cook told. In the same week as the murder, Cook had a casual sexual encounter with the victim, Linda Jo Edwards, at the apartment complex where they lived. For years, Cook withheld information about that encounter from the authorities. In the book, Cook confesses his lie, and explains it more or less adequately — in context, the lies seem understandable, but he never fully grasps, it appears, how just one lie can shatter credibility. The voluminous police, prosecutor, and court records back up the rest of his saga as truthful. The book allows a few honorable men and women to shine. Most notable is James McCloskey, who left his life as a businessman and minister to investigate what appear to be wrongful convictions. Although McCloskey, at his tiny Centurion Ministries office in Princeton, N.J., can investigate less than 1 percent of the cases coming to his attention, Cook beat the odds. After excruciating years in prison, where he was raped and tortured, he got McCloskey’s attention. From that point forward, McCloskey turned up new evidence, paid for appellate lawyers, and gave Cook precious hope. With his reputation restored on the basis of new evidence, including a DNA test, Cook is using his freedom, granted only reluctantly by those with power in the criminal-justice system, to enjoy life with a wife and young son, as well as travel around the nation to advocate criminal-justice-system reform. Once again, the odds are working against him. But if enough people hear his message to hold prosecutors and judges everywhere far more accountable than they are now, Cook will have triumphed once again.
Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative reporter in Columbia, Mo.

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