Sunday, February 23, 2014

Jeffrey Cookson v. Maine: Head in the Sand, DNA Evidence in the Trash

Maine postconviction DNA testing Cookson v. State of Maine
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court decided Jeffrey Cookson v. State of Maine on 2/18/14. Their decision will prevent DNA testing of evidence which might show that the wrong man is in prison while a killer remains at large. The court gives a unique interpretation of Maine's chain of custody law and while it prevents testing for Cookson, it might help other defendants who challenge the prosecution's evidence at trial.

History of the Case

Jeffrey Cookson went to trial in 2001 for the 1999 killings of Mindy Gould and 21-month-old Treven Cunningham. The case against Cookson was largely circumstantial and no murder weapon was recovered before trial. Evidence did show that, at some point, Cookson possessed a Taurus Model PT-99-AF handgun. At trial, an expert who examined the bullets and shell casings, testified that the fatal shots were fired by a PT-99-AF. Cookson was convicted of both murders and then given two life sentences.

After the verdict, another man, David Vantol, confessed to police that he was the killer. He corroborated his story by bringing detectives to a hiding place where he uncovered and handed over a gun that he claimed was the murder weapon. The gun was a Taurus but a different model, a PT-92. A couple days later, Vantol appeared at the police station with a bag containing clothing he claimed to have worn during the killings.

Ballistic testing confirmed that Vantol’s PT-92, not Cookson’s PT-99-AF, was the murder weapon. The firearms expert who testified at trial later admitted that he made mistakes: though he thought markings on the shells and slugs were specific to Cookson’s gun, they really only showed that the rounds came from a certain kind of gun, not a particular weapon.

Still, Vantol is a strange man and his confessions were strange too. He first claimed that he shot the victims in self defense, but then changed his story saying that Cookson hired him to do the killings. After speaking to police, Vantol was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. He then recanted his confessions, claimed that he had nothing to do with the murders and said Cookson told him to confess.

Cookson filed a series of appeals and motions for new trial, all of which were denied. The details and history of the case are better explained by the Maine Supreme Court’s 2003 Cookson opinion. In 2004, Cookson filed a motion requesting DNA analysis of the clothing Vantol gave to police. The State has not analyzed the clothing and has been fighting Cookson's motion for the last 10 years. This decision gives the prosecution a win and almost guarantees that the clothing will never be tested.

Maine's DNA Statute

Maine’s post conviction DNA testing statute requires the defendant to show:
  1. A sample of the evidence is available for DNA analysis;
  2. The evidence to be tested has been subject to a chain of custody sufficient to establish that the evidence has not been substituted, tampered with, replaced or altered in a material way; 
  3. The evidence was not previously subjected to DNA analysis or, if previously analyzed, will be subject to DNA analysis technology that was not available when the person was convicted; 
  4. The identity of the person as the perpetrator of the crime that resulted in the conviction was at issue during the person’s trial; and 
  5. The evidence sought to be analyzed, or the additional information that the new technology is capable of providing regarding evidence sought to be reanalyzed, is material to the issue of whether the person is the perpetrator of, or accomplice to, the crime that resulted in the conviction.
Four of the five conditions were clearly met, so the issue on appeal was whether there was a sufficient chain of custody for the Vansol clothing.

Chain of Custody

Chain of custody is the idea that the party offering evidence must show that the thing offered is the object relating to the case. When we are dealing with drugs, cash, or other fungible items, the proponent should show that there has been a continuity of possession, providing proof of every link in the chain.

When we are talking about particular items identifiable by specific characteristics, the standard is less demanding. A showing that the item is the one in question and is in substantially the same condition should be enough. In this case, Vantol approached police and effectively told them:
  1. I am the man who killed these people not the defendant.
  2. Here are the clothes I was wearing during the murders.
  3. After the killings I hid the clothing because I knew it was incriminating.
  4. Recently, I returned to the hiding spot and found the same clothing where I left it. I now deliver it to you as evidence of my crimes.
Despite Vantol’s statements, the law court reasoned that Cookson didn’t establish the clothing’s chain of custody. They said that Cookson had an obligation, not just to establish the basic identity of the items, but to prove the clothing was not tampered with or substituted. Since it’s almost impossible to prove a negative, Cookson failed to meet this standard.

Justice Jabar's Dissent

Only one judge, Justice Jabar, disagreed with the majority opinion, and he wrote a pretty great dissent. Chain of custody is most often challenged when the prosecution offers evidence against the defendant and in that context, it gets a pretty permissive interpretation. This case kind of flips the script and the law court seems to create a different, higher chain of custody standard.

Jabar notes that the court’s prior decisions find sufficient chain of custody where the State can show that the items are the ones connected with the case. While actual proof of tampering, contamination or substation can compromise the chain of custody, the court has never required a prosecutor to disprove every hypothetical tampering scenario, or to show that the evidence was under constant watch until being presented at trial. Jabar then disagrees with the higher standard the court sets in Cookson:
with this interpretation…the post-conviction court has required Cookson to prove a negative. In other words, although Vantol informed police that he wore the clothes in question during the homicides, buried them following the murders, and retrieved them to turn over to the police, the court nonetheless required Cookson to prove that the items were not “substituted, tampered with, replaced or altered in any material way,” during the two years that they were buried. This places an impossible burden on any person seeking DNA analysis, and the Court’s interpretation is an illogical reading of the post-conviction DNA analysis statute.

The Silver Lining

This opinion came out bad for Mr. Cookson, but it’s kind of great in another way. To prevent the DNA analysis here, the law court had to reinterpret its thinking on chain of custody and that change now strengthens defense objections to the prosecution’s evidence. The Supreme Court’s rationale demands the same of the DA that it does of Cookson and prosecutors might now be required to prove the absence of tampering, alteration or substitution before evidence comes in. That's a standard Cookson could never meet and it's one the prosecution might struggle with for years to come. Of course, that might change when those cases get appealed.