BANGOR – Tearful, yet unrepentant, Jeffrey Cookson looked Justice Roland Cole in the eye Tuesday and swore he never killed anyone.
“This is between you, me and the Lord,” Cookson told the judge.
Moments later, a clearly disgusted judge did not hesitate before sentencing Cookson to two consecutive life sentences for the Dec. 3, 1999, execution-style slayings of a 20-year-old Dexter woman and the 21-month-old child she was baby-sitting.
Cookson’s lawyers plan to file an appeal with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court within 21 days.
The harshness of the sentence, the maximum allowed in this case, came as no surprise to defense attorneys or prosecutors and was handed down after more than two hours of emotional statements from the victims’ families and a tearful tirade from Cookson himself.
Cookson, 39, of Guilford was convicted of the double murders of 20-year-old Mindy Gould and 21-month-old Treven Cunningham in December 2001, after a two-week trial and 13 hours of deliberations by a jury.
He has been incarcerated since his arrest two weeks after the murders. He has maintained his innocence since his arrest.
During the trial, another man, 21-year-old David Vantol, confessed to the killings to Cookson’s attorney, William Maselli of Auburn, but Maselli did not reveal that confession until after Cookson was convicted.
Vantol also turned over the murder weapon that was hidden beneath a rock down the road from the home of Cookson’s brother in Dover-Foxcroft.
Vantol, who is described as having a limited education and a history of mental illness, later recanted his confession, saying that Cookson had convinced him to confess with the promise of money. He said Cookson had told him details of the murders and had told him where the gun was.
Last spring, Cole heard testimony and arguments about the information as Cookson sought to have his conviction thrown out because of the new “evidence” and confession by Vantol. Cole denied every argument put forth by Maselli in an opinion filed in August, paving the way for Tuesday’s sentencing.
On Tuesday, the courtroom overflowed with family and friends of the victims. Deputies had to turn some people away for lack of room at Penobscot County Superior Court.
Choking on her tears, Debbie Cunningham of Garland, Treven Cunningham’s grandmother, told the court that her daughter and grandson had lived with her since he was born.
“Treven never had a bad day,” she said, heaving with grief. “He never saw violence in his life. I spent my life caring for my daughter and protecting her, and I can’t fix this for her. I can’t give her back her baby.”
Cassie Cunningham, the baby’s mother and Gould’s best friend, tried her best to stay composed as she told stories about her baby’s stubborn streak.
“He was my boy, you know,” she said, weeping.
Through her tears she talked of the plans she had to get her and Treven their own home, with pictures of the child as he grew lining the stairwell walls.
“I had this all planned in my mind,” she said. “Jeff Cookson took all of this from me. He took my best friend. He took my son. He ruined me,” she said before turning from the podium and returning to her seat.
Cookson killed Gould and Cunningham at the Church Street home where Gould was living with her sister and her family. Gould had left Cookson, and friends and family members claim he stalked her for weeks before he killed her. Gould had obtained a protection from abuse order just days before she was shot to death in her sister’s home.
On Tuesday, Justice Cole said he believed Cookson knew that Gould was going to be alone that morning and that she was going to be baby-sitting the child. He said he was convinced that Cookson killed the child in revenge for Cassie Cunningham’s having testified against him at the protection from abuse hearing.
Cole said it was clear that the case met all of the standards for two consecutive life sentences because it was premeditated and there was extreme cruelty involved.
Cookson showed no emotion and stared down at his hands clasped on the table before him as nine people stood up to share their stories about the victims and the impact their deaths have had on their lives.
Jennifer Jack, who lived with Cookson in the mid-1990s in New Gloucester and had his child, also spoke to the court, saying that she too was controlled by Cookson and stalked by him when she tried to end the relationship. It was Justice Cole who sentenced Cookson back in the mid-’90s, when he violated a protection order that Jack had taken out against him.
On Tuesday, Jack looked at Cookson and said, “Finally, Jeff, after all this time, I know where you are and I [won't] have to look over my shoulder anymore.”
When it was his turn to speak, Cookson, dressed in a suit and tie, the chains that shackled his black cowboy boots clanging, approached the podium.
“I did not commit that crime,” he said. “I did not take that baby’s life.”
As he continued to talk, suggesting once that he rescued Gould when her family turned their backs on her and how he had fed the baby when other family members ignored his hunger, family members stormed out of the courtroom.
“I took [Gould] into my home. I give her a good home. When she was with me she never had a drag of a cigarette or a sip of alcohol. I cared for that girl very much. I’ve been waiting for my day to look you in the eye, your honor. This is between you, me and the Lord. I didn’t kill that baby. I didn’t kill that girl, but the Lord will have the last word,” he said, crying.
Cookson claims to have turned his life over to Christ and said he was a victim because Vantol was the real killer.
He turned to family members and swore that he did not kill their loved ones, “The Lord knows I’m an innocent man,” he said, urging family members to turn their lives over to Christ so that one day they would be reunited with Treven Cunningham and Gould.
After Cookson’s speech, Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese told Justice Cole that Cookson “had just convinced everyone that he deserves the maximum sentence.”
Cole was clearly unimpressed with Cookson’s plea, accused him of continually trying to manipulate the justice system and noted his complete failure to take responsibility.
“We’re not dealing with an innocent man here,” Cole said. “This is domestic violence at its worst. … My view is that this was an execution. Mindy’s death calls for a life sentence, and clearly the circumstances with Treven call for a life sentence, and that is the judgment of this court.”