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High court to consider Jeffrey Cookson’s request for DNA testing a second time

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Seated in his wheelchair, Jeffrey Cookson turns toward the gallery at the close of a hearing for Cookson at Penobscot Judicial Center Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011.
By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court this week will consider the appeals of three convicted murderers, including the man serving two consecutive life sentences for killing his former girlfriend and the toddler she was babysitting more than a decade ago in Dexter.

Jeffrey Cookson, now 49, is asking the court to allow DNA tests to be conducted on evidence he claims would show someone else pulled the trigger in December 1999. He was sentenced in October 2002 in Penobscot County Superior Court for the murders of Mindy Gould, 20, and 21-month-old Treven Cunningham, both of Dexter.

The state supreme court first ruled on Cookson’s motion for DNA tests in May 2011 when justices ruled 5-1 that Superior Court Justice Roland Cole should have issued written finding of fact as to why the evidence Cookson asked to be tested did not meet criteria outlined in state law. Last June, Cole did that and denied the request a second time.

The justices will hear oral arguments in an appeal of that decision Wednesday at the Cumberland County Courthouse.

“There exists a two-year gap of the items before they were turned over to police and there has been no proof presented that any of the items are in the same condition as when the crime occurred or that they have not been tampered with,” Cole wrote in his decision.

Cookson first asked five years ago that a pair of sneakers, a bright orange hat, a black wig and two rotted shirts be tested for DNA. 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, according to a previously published report. 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 in Bangor, 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 shoes, a hat, sneakers and shirts in it, according to court documents.

Those are the items Cookson has asked to be tested for DNA.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court also will hear oral arguments in the appeals of Jason Twardus, 31, of Rochester, N.H., and Brian Nichols, 48, of Turner. Twardus is serving a 38-year sentence after being convicted of strangling a Maine nursing student in 2007 who had broken off her engagement to him, then burying her body on his father’s property in northern New Hampshire. Nichols is serving a 40-year sentence for murdering his wife in 2010 because he thought she was having an affair.

Twardus is appealing the denial of two motions for a new trial. Nichols, who pleaded guilty to murder, is challenging the length of his sentence.

The justices also will consider the appeal of Corina Durkee, 45, of Waldoboro in a civil case. Durkee and Earl D. “Buddy” Bieler III, 28, of Waldoboro were ordered last June to pay $3.7 million in damages to Tracey Neild, 36, also of Waldoboro.

Neild was nearly decapitated when Durkee and Bieler attacked her and cut her throat in her driveway on April 19, 2009, according to a previously published report. Neild’s companion, Rachel Grindal, 27, was killed in the attack.

Durkee is expected to argue that the trial court failed to consider mitigating factors in calculating the damage award, including Durkee’s significant criminal sentence and limited ability to pay, according to information posted on the court’s website.

Beiler was sentenced to 45 years in prison for murder and attempted murder. Durkee was sentenced to 15 years in prison as his accomplice.

To listen to the court’s webstream of oral arguments, visit http://www.courts.state.me.us/maine_courts/supreme/stream.shtml.

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