BANGOR, Maine — The judge who sentenced Jeffrey Cookson to spend the rest of his life behind bars has denied for a second time the convicted murderer’s motion to conduct DNA tests on evidence that Cookson claims would show someone else pulled the trigger more than a decade ago.
Cookson was sentenced in October 2002 in Penobscot County Superior Court to two consecutive life sentences for the murders of Mindy Gould, 20, and 21-month-old Treven Cunningham, both of Dexter, in December 1999. Four years ago, he first asked for DNA testing on a pair of sneakers, a bright orange hat, a black wig and two rotted shirts. Those items and the murder weapon were turned over to Cookson’s trial attorney, William Maselli of Auburn, by David H. Vatol, now 32 and a resident of Hope, during Cookson’s murder trial. Maselli did not tell the judge that Vantol had confessed to the crime until after Cookson was convicted of two counts of murder in November 2001.
Vantol, who has been described as having a limited education and a history of mental illness, confessed to a detective five times before recanting his confession after being hospitalized at Acadia Hospital, according to court documents.
At a hearing after Cookson’s conviction, Vantol said that when he visited Cookson in jail during the trial, Cookson promised him $10,000 if he would confess to the crime and told him to take police to where the gun was hidden and give them some clothes to make his story more credible.
Vantol led police to the murder weapon, hidden under a rock at a crossroads not far from the home of Cookson’s brother in Dover-Foxcroft. He also gave police a trash bag with the shoes, hat, sneakers and shirts in it, according to court documents.
Those are the items Cookson has asked to be tested for DNA.
Superior Court Justice Roland Cole last week issued his 21-page ruling. The judge conducted a hearing on the motion last Sept. 1 at the Penobscot Judicial Center after the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in March 2010 reversed Cole’s earlier decision. The justices ruled 5-1 that Cole should have issued written findings of fact as to why the evidence Cookson asked to be tested did not meet criteria outlined in state law.
“ There exists a two-year gap of the items before they were turned over to the police and there has been no proof presented that any of the items are in the same condition when the crime occurred or that they have not been tampered with,” Cole wrote.
Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber, who handled the appeal for the state, said Thursday that the judge put in his ruling what the state Supreme Court justices told him to put in writing.
Efforts to reach Richard Hartley, the Bangor attorney who has been appointed to handle the next phase of Cookson’s appeal, were unsuccessful Thursday.
Macomber said that Hartley had informed his office that Cole’s most recent decision will be appealed again to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Other evidence gathered from the crime scene in 1999 that had not been tested before Cookson’s trial has been tested, Cole noted in a footnote to his ruling.
“The results did not advance Cookson’s claim of innocence,” the judge wrote.
The Maine attorney general’s office did not object to the testing of that evidence, Cole said.