Retrial denied for man convicted of double murder

Posted Aug. 13, 2002, at 1:30 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 24, 2010, at 1:31 p.m.

BANGOR – A man convicted of a 1999 double homicide in Dexter was denied a new trial Friday by a Penobscot County Superior Court judge.

Jeffrey Cookson of Dover-Foxcroft was convicted in December 2000 of the execution-style slaying of his former girlfriend, 20-year-old Mindy Gould, and 21-month-old Treven Cunningham, for whom she had been baby-sitting.

Prosecutors expect the most recent decision in the complicated case to be appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Sentencing has been set for Oct. 15. Cookson, who remains jailed, faces life in prison.

In his ruling issued Friday, Justice Roland Cole denied every argument for a new trial made last month by William Maselli, Cookson’s Lewiston attorney. The judge criticized Maselli for waiting to inform the court until after the verdict was announced that another man had confessed and knew where the murder weapon, a 9 mm Taurus, was hidden.

David Vantol, 21, of Guilford, reportedly confessed to Maselli and his private investigator two days before the start of Cookson’s trial. Vantol later recanted his confession, testifying that Cookson had coached him on the details of the crime – including the gun’s hiding place – and offered to pay him to take the blame.

Maselli contended during last month’s hearing that because the confession was not revealed during Cookson’s trial, it constituted new evidence.

In his 17-page decision, Cole dismissed that argument, stating that the court could have “compelled Vantol to take the stand – and at least force[d] him to assert his Fifth Amendment privilege – allowed a continuance, or granted a mistrial.”

“Instead, [Maselli] took the decision into his own hands,” continued the judge. “The court finds that [the defense] has shown no reasonable excuse for [its] failure to present this to the court, and thus finds that it is not newly discovered evidence. …

“[The defense] made a strategic decision to withhold this information until after the verdict. As a matter of fact, [Maselli] revealed this information to the court mere minutes after the verdict was read. He cannot now come to the court and declare that this information is newly discovered evidence.”

Cole also rejected Maselli’s contention that a new trial was warranted because the state testified falsely about the weapon believed to be the gun used to kill Gould and Cunningham. The judge dismissed that argument, writing that the state’s ballistic expert did not intentionally offer false testimony or commit perjury – standards required for a new trial.

The state had not recovered the alleged murder weapon before the trial began and used a complicated chain of evidence to link the murder weapon to Cookson. Masseli neither hired his own ballistic expert nor cross-examined the state’s experts during the trial.

The justice also ruled that Cookson had not been deprived of a fair trial, nor had his due process rights been violated.

William Stokes, deputy attorney general, said Monday that his department was “very pleased” with the decision. Assistant Attorney General Fernand LaRochelle, who prosecuted Cookson along with Lisa Marchese, was not available for comment Monday.

Stokes said that even if Cookson had been granted a new trial, the case against him was actually stronger now that the murder weapon had been found.

Maselli could not be reached for comment Monday.

Cookson has remained in the Penobscot County Jail since his arrest a few weeks after the Dec. 3, 1999, slayings.

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