BANGOR, Maine — The judge who sentenced Jeffrey Cookson to two consecutive life sentences nearly nine years ago for the execution-style shooting of his ex-girlfriend and the 21-month-old boy she was baby-sitting considered Wednesday whether to conduct DNA tests on evidence that might show someone else pulled the trigger.
The 47-year-old man who faced Superior Court Justice Roland Cole in the courtroom at the Penobscot Judicial Center looked very different from the unrepentant defendant who told Cole at his sentencing in October 2002 that he did not kill Mindy Gould, 20, or Treven Cunningham, both of Dexter, in December 1999.
Looking heavier and much older than he did during his trial at the former Penobscot County Courthouse, Cookson sat Wednesday at the defense table in a wheelchair and used reading glasses to take notes while his court-appointed attorney, Karen Wolfram of Portland, argued for DNA testing on a pair of sneakers, a bright orange hat, 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. Vantol, now 31 and a resident of Hope, during the trial.
Maselli did not tell the judge that Vantol had confessed to the crime until after Cookson was convicted of two counts of murder.
Vantol, who has been described as having a limited education and a history of mental illness, confessed to detectives five times, according to Wolfram, before recanting his confession after being hospitalized at Acadia Hospital.
In response to questions from Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese, who prosecuted the case, 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.
Wednesday’s hearing was the result of a 5-1 decision issued in January by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The justices ruled that Cole should have issued written findings of fact as to why the evidence Cookson asked to be tested in 2009 did not meet criteria outlined in state law.
The hearing Wednesday focused on the issue of where the items were before they were turned over to a Maine State Police detective after Cookson’s trial. 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.
Jessica Whitney, 34, of Corinth identified the sneakers as a pair she had given Vantol when the two were lovers between 1999 and 2004. She did not recognize the clothing.
Vantol, who is serving a two-year sentence at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham for continuing to drive after having his license suspended, testified Wednesday that none of the items the defense wanted tested belonged to him. He also denied killing Gould and the boy.
Vantol said Wednesday that he got the clothes from a pile of old clothes at a junkyard owned by Scott Cookson, Jeffrey Cookson’s brother. More than nine years ago, he led police to a buried plastic garbage bag containing the clothes, according to court documents.
Dressed in an orange jumpsuit with his ankles shackled, Vantol had difficulty recalling events that occurred in December 2001.
After the three-hour hearing ended, Wolfram said she had established a chain of custody for the items as the Supreme Court required.
“Vantol said he had no knowledge that the items were ever tampered with or moved even though now where they were is different [than it was in 2001],” she said.
If the judge rules that the items may be tested, Wolfram said, the results could lead to a new trial for Cookson.
“[Wolfram] has ignored the law court’s decision,” Marchese told Cole in her closing statement. “She has the burden to establish the chain of custody and she simply has not made it. No evidence has been presented about how the clothes got there, when they were put there or by whom.”
After Wednesday’s hearing, Wolfram said she “would not discuss [her] client’s medical issues” when asked why Cookson was in a wheelchair.
More than a dozen family and friends of the victims attended the hearing as they have since the slayings more than a decade ago. Treven’s step-grandfather Arthur Jette, 60, of Cambridge said after Wednesday’s hearing that defendants in murder cases seemed to have the right to endless appeals.
“Where is justice for the victims’ families?” he said. “We continue to go through this at the expense of the citizens.”
Cole is expected to issue his decision before the end of the year. That decision is expected to be appealed.
The judge paused the hearing at noon for two minutes of silence in remembrance of the victims who have lost their lives because of domestic violence. As part of “A Call to Remember: A Call to Action,” church bells around the state rang one minute for the victims and one minute as a call to the community to respond. Church bells were not audible in the courtroom for the judicial center.