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Texas court finds Kerry Max Cook innocent of 1977 murder, ending decades-long quest for exoneration

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EAST TEXAS – Kerry Max Cook is innocent of the 1977 murder of Linda Jo Edwards, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found, citing stunning allegations of prosecutorial misconduct that led to Cook spending 20 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

Kerry Max Cook, foreground, and his attorneys, background on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 1999, in Bastrop, Texas. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck) HARRY CABLUCK

Cook was released from prison in 1997 and Smith County prosecutors set aside his conviction in 2016. The ruling Wednesday, by the state's highest criminal court, formally exonerates him.

"This case is riddled with allegations of State misconduct that warrant setting aside Applicant's conviction," Judge Bert Richardson wrote in the majority opinion. "And when it comes to solid support for actual innocence, this case contains it all - uncontroverted Brady violations, proof of false testimony, admissions of perjury and new scientific evidence."

Cook, now 68, became an advocate against the death penalty after his release. The ruling ends, as Richardson wrote, a "winding legal odyssey" stretching 40 years that was "marked by bookends of deception."

Prosecutors in Smith County, in East Texas, accused Cook of the 1977 rape, murder and mutilation of 21-year-old Edwards. Cook's first conviction in 1978 was overturned. A second trial in 1992 ended in a mistrial and a third in 1994 concluded with a new conviction and death sentence. The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the second verdict in 1996, stating that misconduct by police and prosecutors had tainted the case from the start.

The Smith County district attorney intended to try Cook a fourth time in 1999 but settled for a plea deal in which Cook was released from prison but his conviction stood. Until Wednesday, he was still classified as a murderer by the Texas justice system.

Smith County District Attorney Jacob Putman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Cook could not be reached for comment.

The Court of Criminal Appeals opinion Wednesday noted numerous instances of wrongdoing by police and prosecutors. During the 1978 trial, the prosecution illegally withheld favorable evidence from Cook's defense team and much of the evidence they did present was revealed to be false.

One of the prosecution's witnesses was a jailhouse snitch who met Cook at the Smith County jail and said Cook confessed to the murder. The witness later recanted his testimony as false, stating: "I lied on him to save myself."

The prosecution also withheld that in exchange for that damning testimony, they had agreed to lower that witness's first-degree murder charge to voluntary manslaughter.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

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