BANGOR – One has to assume there was a stunned silence in Justice Roland Cole’s chambers last week when minutes after a jury proclaimed 38-year-old Jeffrey Cookson guilty of two murders, his attorney stepped forward to say that another man had confessed and offered up the missing murder weapon.
Cookson was convicted of the execution-style murders of his estranged girlfriend 20-year-old Mindy Gould and Treven Cunningham, the 21-month-old child she was baby-sitting on the morning of Dec. 3, 1999, in Dexter.
It was a case that took two years to come to trial. The nearly two-week-long trial was tiring and emotional, as was the 13-hour wait while the jury deliberated.
The victims’ families were weary. The
attorneys and investigators were weary.
The media were weary.
Cookson’s attorney, Will-iam Maselli of Auburn, says 21-year-old David Vantol confessed as Maselli was interviewing him in preparation of putting him on the stand as an alibi witness for Cookson. Vantol was living with Cookson at his brother Scott Cookson’s Guilford home at the time of the murders and was prepared to testify that Cookson was at the home when the Dexter murders occurred.
But during the routine pretrial interview, which is conducted to ensure the witness is going to say what the attorney expects him to say, Vantol dropped a bombshell.
The guilt, he reportedly told Maselli, had gotten to him and he had to confess that he was the murderer.
According to Maselli, Vantol’s first story had him making a chance stop at the home where Gould was living to see about buying some snowmobile parts. When he entered the home, a gun and ammunition were on the table, and when Gould recognized him as one of Cookson’s friends, she went after him with the gun.
There was a struggle, and she was shot. And, apparently, so was the baby.
Maselli said recently that he seriously doubted Vantol’s story.
“It didn’t make any sense,” Maselli said.
Neither did any of the other scenarios Vantol put forth that day.
Maselli chose not to put Vantol on the stand, suspecting that if he didn’t believe the stories, neither would the jury, and Cookson’s case would be hurt.
Early in the second week of the trial, Maselli and his private investigator brought Vantol back to Bangor for a second interview. This time the two men pushed Vantol for more information, and eventually “he broke” and offered up a story that Maselli found credible. Vantol also offered the stunning information that he had the missing 9 mm Taurus that prosecutors and ballistics experts claim was used to kill Gould and Cunningham.
This time, however, Maselli found himself in an unusual and probably somewhat uncomfortable situation. The only story Vantol told that “made sense” implicated Cookson.
Vantol, described as a simple man with limited education, told Maselli that Cookson spent a week convincing him to kill Gould. On the morning of the murders, Cookson drove Vantol to the Church Street home in Dexter, gave him the gun and told him to commit murder, Vantol reportedly told Maselli.
According to Vantol’s story, neither he nor Cookson knew the baby was going to be at the house. He told Maselli that after pushing Gould into the bedroom and shooting her in the head, he noticed the infant and “reacted” and shot him too.
The question now is where this leaves the state’s case against Cookson and the jury’s verdict.
Maselli quickly filed a motion for a new trial, based upon the new information that had come to light since the conviction.
But while the legal community is a bit abuzz about the new developments the case could raise, many experts in the field last week said, “So what?”
Maselli’s motion for a new trial based on “new evidence” is weak because the evidence is not new.
New evidence must be discovered after the trial is over. Maselli discovered this “new” evidence days before the case was finished.
“It was his decision to not put forth this information,” said one legal expert. “That’s not new evidence and I would be very surprised if that argument went anywhere.”
The other legal avenue available to Cookson is to fire Maselli and request a new trial under the argument of “ineffective assistance of counsel,” meaning Maselli erred and hurt Cookson’s chance of an acquittal by not putting Vantol on the stand.
But, as some experts note, it is unlikely that Vantol’s testimony would have helped Cookson’s case, since Vantol planned to testify that Cookson put him up to the murders and provided him with the gun.
While Maselli is dealing with these issues, he’s arguing that the state should have arrested Vantol by now.
The state is not saying much, but acknowledged that Vantol has undergone significant questioning by police.
The problem appears to be that his stories are changing continually. He has told the media that he never confessed to anything.
It does appear that he knows details about the murders that only the murderer should have known, but there is always the chance that someone else told him those things. He lived with Cookson’s brother for several months and now lives with Cookson’s niece.
He did, however, produce the murder weapon.
Based on what the state has heard so far from Vantol, Cookson is no less culpable than he ever was. Conspiring to have someone killed, providing the opportunity and the weapon, is the same as doing it yourself, as shown in the case of New Hampshire’s Pamela Smart, who convinced two of her students to kill her husband.
So what about the conviction in Treven Cunningham’s murder? Maselli argues that while his client may be guilty of Gould’s murder, he gave no orders to kill the baby.
No matter, say most legal experts.
Cunningham’s death becomes a “reasonably foreseeable consequence” of Gould’s murder, and under Maine law that’s still murder, experts say.
Maselli says that even if his client doesn’t get a new trial, the length of his sentence may be affected if the judge accepts that Cookson didn’t intend to kill the baby.
The state has acknowledged that it is seriously considering asking that Cookson be sentenced to life in prison. Based on the two convictions, he could get two life sentences.
It all may make for interesting legal fodder in the courtroom, but in reality the result may not change much. Unless, of course, Vantol’s story about his involvement is true, in which case, Cookson may have company in prison.