Court rejects Jeffrey Cookson’s request to test clothing for DNA in double murder

Jeffrey Cookson in 2011.
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Jeffrey Cookson in 2011.
Posted Feb. 18, 2014, at 12:04 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 18, 2014, at 5:41 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday refused to allow DNA tests on clothing a man serving two life sentences for murder says would exonerate him.

In a 5-1 decision, the court affirmed Superior Court Justice Roland Cole’s denial of Jeffrey Cookson’s request that clothing — found after he was convicted of the murders of Mindy Gould, 20, and 21-month-old Treven Cunningham, both of Dexter, in December 1999 — be tested for DNA.

Cookson, 50, is serving two consecutive life sentences for killing his former girlfriend and the toddler she was baby-sitting more than a decade ago in Dexter. Cookson claims someone else pulled the trigger.

The state supreme court first ruled on Cookson’s motion for DNA tests in May 2011 when justices ruled 5-1 that Justice 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.

Cookson first asked more than 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. Vantol, 33, 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 in Bangor, according to court documents.

Justices heard oral argument in the case a second time in May. Questions focused on the “chain of custody” of the items Cookson wanted tested.

“The point of establishing a chain of custody is to demonstrate that the evidence presented for testing is evidence that is germane to the case, and that it has not been tampered with,” Justice Ellen Gorman wrote for the majority. “Here, the evidence presented in support of Cookson’s petition demonstrated that the bag of clothing Vantol produced contained fewer than all of the items he had promised, and that it had been obtained from a site owned by Cookson’s brother after a two-year period during which Cookson was unable to account for its location or condition at all.

“Given the state of the record, the post-conviction court was not compelled to find that Cookson had established, on a prima facie basis, that the clothing was related to the murders and that it had not been moved or tampered with during the two years between the murders and the time the clothing was produced,” she concluded. “Thus, the trial court did not err in determining that Cookson failed to establish the chain of custody necessary to obtain an order for post-conviction DNA analysis.”

Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley and Justices Donald Alexander, Warren Silver and Jon Levy agreed with Gorman, while Justice Andrew Mead recused himself from the case.

Justice Joseph Jabar said in his dissent that the clothing should be tested.

“DNA analysis has had a dramatic impact on justice in this country,” he wrote. “Not only has it vindicated some defendants who have been wrongfully convicted, but it has also been used by law enforcement to reopen old cases and convict defendants of crimes that had previously gone unsolved. It is incumbent on the state, in its judicial, investigative, and prosecutorial capacities, to use this ‘unparalleled’ evidence where it is available.

“In this case, because the prima facie standard requires only ‘some evidence’ of chain of custody, and the chain of custody for these items does not require the party seeking to introduce the evidence to negate every possibility of tampering, the court made an error of law in concluding that Cookson did not satisfy the requirements of [the statute],” he wrote. “Therefore, the court’s decision affirming the denial of DNA testing is contrary to the requirements of the DNA analysis statute, our decision[s] in [previous cases]. I would vacate the trial court’s decision and remand for further proceedings.”

Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber, who handled the appeal for the state, praised the decision Tuesday in an email.

“With this decision, all DNA testing has now been completed,” he said. “None of the testing completed to date has in any way undermined the jury’s conclusion that Jeffrey Cookson is the murderer. We’re very pleased with the decision. This has been a long and painful journey for the victims’ families. Now, they are one step closer to closure.”

Richard Hartley, the Bangor attorney handling Cookson’s latest appeal, said Tuesday that he was unsure what his client’s next step would be.

“Justice Jabar hit the nail on the head when he said that the majority’s analysis make it virtually impossible for a defendant to challenge a conviction. This decision guts the DNA statute.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.

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