May 21, 2018
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High court to hear appeal in murder of toddler, young woman

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will hear oral arguments Thursday in an appeal from convicted murderer Jeffrey Cookson, who is serving consecutive life sentences for the slayings in December 1999 of his ex-girlfriend Mindy Gould, 20, and the boy she was baby-sitting, Treven Cunningham, 21 months old, both of Dexter.

Cookson’s attorney, Karen Wolfram of Portland, is asking that clothes and a wig worn by a man who claimed to have killed the woman and toddler but later recanted that statement be tested for DNA. Results of those tests could lead to a new trial, she said in briefs filed with the court.

Wolfram did not represent Cookson at his trial.

Superior Court Justice Roland Cole in October 2009 properly denied a request for the testing of the items, Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber, who represents the state, said in a brief to the justices.

He argued that the clothes should not be tested, because Wolfram has failed to show the items had any association with the murders. Macomber also maintained that because the clothes were not given to police until two years after the slaying, the chain of custody, as defined by Maine law, was not maintained.

Cookson, now 47 and incarcerated at the Maine State Prison in Warren, continues to maintain his innocence.

He was convicted in December 2001 by a Penobscot County jury of shooting the two execution-style on Dec. 3, 1999, at the Dexter home of Gould’s sister. A few days before her death, Gould had taken out a protection from abuse order against Cookson of Dover-Foxcroft, according to previously published reports.

The appeal before justices Thursday deals with information given to Cookson’s trial defense attorney, William Maselli of Auburn, but not shared with law enforcement officials or Justice Cole, who presided at Cookson’s trial, until shortly after the verdict was announced. In 2001, Maselli said that David Vantol, then 21 and living in Guilford, had admitted to him that he committed the murders.

Vantol later led investigators to the murder weapon, which until then had not been found, and the clothes and wig he said he had been wearing when he killed the boy and Gould, the briefs in the current appeal agreed. Vantol repeatedly told police in December 2001 that he committed the crimes at Cookson’s request and an offer of $10,000.

Two months later, at a hearing on Maselli’s motion for a new trial, Vantol, who was described in court as a man with a history of mental illness and a limited education, recanted his confession. Records showed that Vantol visited Cookson in jail in 2001. Investigators and prosecutors speculated in 2002 that that was how Vantol learned the details of the murders.

“Whether you believe David Vantol’s repeated confessions to the murders or not, the evidence sought to be tested was taken into police custody as part and parcel of the police investigation into the murders from the same person who confessed repeatedly to the murders and provided the actual murder weapon to the police two years after the crimes were committed,” Wolfram wrote in her brief. “As such, the evidence is related to [the] underlying murder investigation or prosecution that led to Mr. Cookson’s conviction, requiring an order of DNA testing in this case.”

In his brief, Macomber said that all Wolfram has been able to show so far was that the Maine State Police still have control or possession of the clothing and other items Vantol provided them more than nine years ago. She has not shown that the items were associated with the deaths of Gould and Cunningham, which is required by Maine law before they can be tested, according to Macomber.

“While [Cookson] would like this court to rely only on the statements that Vantol made to the police when he turned the clothing and other items over to the police on Dec. 8, 2001,” Macomber wrote, “Cookson ignores that Vantol recanted those statements, that the trial court expressly found Vantol’s recantation [and not his initial confession] was truthful, and that this court has already found that the evidence supported the trial court’s finding discrediting the recanted statement.”

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court in December 2003 unanimously affirmed Cookson’s convictions and sentences. Justices unanimously found that Maselli’s decision not to tell police or the judge that Vantol had confessed to the crimes was a “tactical” decision by the defense team.

In a related 2005 civil case, then Superior Court Justice Andrew Mead ordered Cookson to pay $1.5 million in damages to the slain toddler’s mother, Cassie Cunningham, then 24 and living in Bangor. Cookson represented himself at the jury-waived trial.

While Cunningham recognized it was highly unlikely she ever would collect the judgment, her attorney, Marie Hansen of Bangor, said in May 2005 that winning the lawsuit recognized her and her family’s loss.

Mead, now on the Maine supreme court, most likely will recuse himself from hearing Cookson’s latest appeal.

There is no timeline under which Maine’s high court must issue its ruling.

Vantol, 30, now living in Hope, last fall was fined $1,000 and sentenced in Knox County to two years in prison for operating a vehicle after a habitual offender revocation, according to court news published in the Bangor Daily News. Details about that incident were not available Wednesday due to the snowstorm.

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