June 18, 2018
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New trial unlikely to change outcome for convicted killer Jeffrey Cookson

By Renee Ordway, Special to the BDN

Since Jeffrey Cookson is back gracing our morning newspaper, still claiming that he was unjustly convicted of killing a young Dexter woman and the toddler she was baby-sitting, I thought it might be relevant to revisit a few points from his 2001 trial.

Cookson, now 47, was convicted of the execution-style slaying of 20-year-old Mindy Gould and 21-month-old Treven Cunningham at a home in Dexter in December 1999.

When Justice Roland Cole sentenced Cookson to two life sentences in prison, he called the case “domestic violence at its worst.”

“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.”

That Cookson was guilty, of course, was not Cole’s finding. That belonged to the jury who listened to a week and a half of testimony and arguments, heard from 80 witnesses, viewed about 100 pieces of evidence and deliberated for 13 hours.

But just minutes after the jury delivered its guilty verdict, Cookson’s attorney, William Maselli of Auburn, visited the judge in his chambers and provided the mind-numbing news that another fellow had confessed to the killings and could take police to where the missing murder weapon had been hidden.

And indeed that was the truth.

David Vantol, then 21 years old, described as having a limited education and a history of mental illness, was living with Jeff Cookson’s brother Scott Cookson in Guilford when the murders occurred.

Vantol claims Jeff Cookson convinced him to say that he had committed the murders in self-defense and that Cookson would set him up financially for the rest of his life.

Vantol made that confession to Cookson’s attorney, who didn’t buy any of it. Vantol claims Cookson then summoned him back to jail and the two changed the story and Vantol confessed again, saying that he had committed the murders under Cookson’s direction.

This time, Vantol provided some specific details of the murder scene and said he knew where the missing murder weapon was — and he did.

He said Cookson told him that if he made the confession, Vantol would serve only a little time in jail or in a mental institution and that Cookson would hire a well-known Portland lawyer to represent him.

Cookson also allegedly told Vantol to give the police some clothing and to tell them it was clothing that Vantol wore when he committed the murders.

Vantol since has said he just pulled some clothes out of a pile of junk in Scott Cookson’s home.

Those are the clothes that Cookson’s new attorney is claiming should have been tested for DNA — and could pave the way for a new trial for her client.

The police never believed Vantol’s confession. Vantol was given a lie detector test to determine whether he was telling the truth when he confessed to the murders. He failed.

Even if Vantol’s latter story was true, that Cookson had convinced him to commit the murders, had driven him to the home and had provided him the gun, Cookson would still be guilty of murder.

Remember Pamela Smart, who convinced a couple of her students to kill her husband?

But let’s revisit just a bit of the evidence that the jurors heard in making their decision to convict Jeff Cookson.

The gun belonged to Cookson.

Cookson claimed he was at his brother’s home when the murders occurred, yet a Verizon employee testified that several phone calls were made from the brother’s home to Jeff Cookson’s pager at the time of the murders.

Several police officers and forensic experts testified about the very odd bullets that were used to kill Gould and Cunningham. Many claimed they had never seen such bullets before the murder.

Yet one of those same bullets was found on the ground of the Foxbrook Variety store in Dover-Foxcroft where Cookson purchased gas on the morning of the murders.

A nurse practitioner who was treating Gould testified that she had contacted Dexter police two weeks before the murders because she was concerned for Gould’s safety.

“I wanted the police to know that this was not a lover’s quarrel that they could just write off,” she said. “I wanted them to know that I thought she was in grave physical danger.”

That nurse and a physical therapist who also treated Gould testified that Cookson had called their office several times trying to find out when Gould’s appointments were.

Cookson had aggressively stalked Gould since November 1999. Three days before the murders a court granted Gould a permanent protection-from-abuse order against Cookson.

Gould’s best friend, Cassie Cunningham, testified against Cookson during that hearing. Cassie was Treven Cunningham’s mother.

Our legal system is based on complicated rules of evidence and procedures. It allows for appeals and higher court reviews, and consequently justice can take many years and cost countless dollars.

This will play out over the next months or possibly years, but in the end it is just as Justice Cole said it was, a case of domestic violence at its worst and the right person — the guilty person — will continue to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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