Defense attorney: Evidence about alternative suspect should get new trial for man convicted of strangling ex-fiancee
PORTLAND, Maine — The man serving two consecutive life sentences for killing his former girlfriend and the toddler she was baby-sitting more than a decade ago in Dexter on Wednesday asked the state’s high court to allow DNA tests to be conducted on evidence he claims would show someone else pulled the trigger.
Jeffrey Cookson, now 49, 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, in December 1999.
Justices also considered whether c onvicted murderer Jason Twardus should be acquitted or granted a new trial. His attorney, Daniel Lilley of Portland, told the court that evidence supporting the defense’s alternative suspect theory should have been presented to the jury.
In Cookson’s case, the justices’ questions focused on how they could be sure the evidence was not tampered with during the two years it was buried, whether proving Cookson did not pull the trigger but paid someone else to do it would change the outcome of the case and whether testing could be done without permission from the court.
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.
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. Vantol, 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, Bangor attorney Richard Hartley, who is arguing Cookson’s latest appeal, told the court Wednesday.
Justice Ellen Gorman said the fact that the clothing was buried on Cookson’s brother’s property raised questions about the chain of custody of the evidence. Evidence collected at crime scenes usually is stored by police in locked facilities, she said.
“That implies it was under someone else’s control and not Vantol’s,” she said. “It wasn’t on [Vantol’s] property or one of his own relatives’ property.”
Justice Donald Alexander pointed out that even if Cookson were granted a new trial and a jury found that Vantol pulled the trigger at Cookson’s request, Cookson still could be found guilty of murder.
Hartley said that on a different set of facts, Cookson might receive a different sentence.
“Why not ask the [Indigent Legal Defense] Commission to pay for the testing rather than going through the court?” Justice Joseph Jabar asked Hartley.
The commission pays for attorneys, investigators, experts and testing of evidence for indigent defendants. It is paying Hartley to represent Cookson in his appeal.
Hartley said that he may ask the commission to pay for testing if this appeal fails.
Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber said that the law required Cookson to present evidence that the clothing was related to the murders and that it was not contaminated after the murders before it was turned over to police.
“Cookson has introduced some evidence of the former, but no evidence of the latter,” Macomber said. He urged the court to deny Cookson’s request.
In Twardus’ appeal, Assistant Attorney General William Stokes told the court that in denying Lilley’s motions for a new trial, Justice G. Arthur Brennan found that the evidence “was overwhelming” that Twardus murdered Kelly Gorham, 30, of Alfred. Brennan presided over Twardus’ trial in late September 2010 and sentenced him the next year to 38 years in prison.
Gorham went missing sometime during Aug. 7-8, 2007, according to previously published reports. Her body was found a month later in a shallow grave buried on land in New Hampshire owned by Twardus’ father. Twardus, 31, of Rochester, N.H., was convicted of strangling the nursing student, who had broken off her engagement to him, in 2007.
Justices on Wednesday focused their questions on the failure of a Maine State Police detective, whose identity is uncertain, to pass on to the prosecution information he received from Charity Camire, who worked for Maine Pretrial Services at the York County Jail in 2007. The prosecution would have been obligated to share it with the defense.
Gorham’s landlord John Durfee, now deceased, reportedly told Camire during the time when the victim still was considered a missing person that he believed her body was buried in New Hampshire.
If they had heard that evidence, “the jury could have asked how could this guy, who was the last person to see her alive, know she was dead, know she was buried rather than dumped in the ocean and know she was buried in northern New Hampshire,” Lilley told the justices.
In answer to questions from justices, Stokes said that Detective Michael Zabarsky, who headed up the investigation into Gorham’s strangulation death, had no memory of speaking with Camire about information she may have gotten from Durfee.
“Zabarsky has no memory or notes of that conversation,” the prosecutor told justices. “The state police were quite familiar with Durfee and had heard many times from him that he believed she was dead and that her former boyfriend from New Hampshire had done it. We understood it to be more of the same from Durfee.”
Lilley said his client should be acquitted or granted a new trial because what Durfee told Camire contradicted his trial testimony.
“He testified he did not know anything about the property or where she was buried,” Lilley said.
The defense attorney also said that Durfee may have executed “the best frame-up a person could devise.”
There is no timeline under which the court must issue its decisions.
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.