JeJuan Cooks has spent the past thirteen years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. The jury that convicted him weren’t sure of the appropriate sentence: should it be 99 years or life in prison? Effectively, it makes little difference. Barring some dramatic development, Mr. Cooks will be an old man when he next sets foot in the free world.
And at this late date, the only person who can help JeJuan Cooks is the man who put him in prison, Chris White. Mr. White was a Sheriff’s Deputy when he encountered Mr. Cooks in 2009. He was elevated to the Sheriff’s desk in 2018, resigned that post in 2021, and recently became the police chief in West, Texas (just up the road from Waco). This post was written with Chief White in mind. I’m not sure it will change his mind about what happened, and what didn’t happen, a little over thirteen years ago; but my prayer is that he will read, reconsider, and respond.
By now, of course, you want to know the basic facts of the case. (I have written extensively on this case and will be providing links to my earlier work for those who want more detail.) In the early hours of December 20, 2009, JeJuan Cooks was driving between Temple and Hearne, two towns in East Central Texas. With him was his girlfriend, Brandi Acosta (the owner of the Mercedes JeJuan was driving), Brandi’s younger sister, and, riding in a car seat in the back, her one-year-old child. JeJuan was traveling to Hearne to see his mother. The story begins in earnest when he was pulled over at the intersection of Highways 485 and 77 (see map below).
JeJuan Cooks was cooperating with Sheriff’s Deputy Chris White until he was asked for his driver’s license. Then he panicked. He had missed a court hearing a few days earlier, so he was subject to arrest. He hit the gas.
If you are inclined to believe that every drug dealer is worthy of a death sentence, or, at the very least, life in prison, you will likely want to stop reading at this point. I hope you don’t. At the time of arrest, JeJuan Cooks was dealing drugs. He had been looking for work that was less dangerous and stressful, but legit jobs were scarce. Most of his trade was in Hearne, but he was living in Temple, an hour to the west, and that meant a lot of back-and-forth travel on Highway 485. He never transported drugs between Hearne and Temple. It was far too risky. And he didn’t own a gun. Having done prison time as a juvenile, being found in possession of a firearm meant an automatic trip to the big house. JeJuan Cooks stayed out of prison by being smart. The police pulled him over all the time and always came up empty. You can find more on Mr. Cooks’ early life here.
But that was before a police informant asked for a ride from Hearne to Temple. The car was stopped, the man had drugs in his gym bag, and charges were filed. His attorney hadn’t informed him of the hearing he missed, but that wouldn’t matter to the law. So, he panicked. He ran. He has been paying for that mistake for the past thirteen years with no end in sight.
I am biased. I freely admit it. JeJuan got married last year. I was present when he stretched his hand through a small hole in the wire mesh cage and exchanged vows with the woman who is now his wife. The couple was not allowed to embrace. Prison is psychological hell. Mr. Cooks has matured. He has mellowed. He longs for freedom. And that’s why, for me, he can never be just another criminal. For me, this stuff is personal.
What happened next: Two conflicting stories
After a high-speed chase at speeds in excess of 110 MPH, Cooks stopped his girlfriend’s Mercedes, and ran across the cultivated field that separated Highway 485 and County Road 260. Deputy White pursued Cooks in his police car, stopping inches from the fence. This map will give you some idea of the scene.
As JeJuan attempted to climb the fence, he felt a sudden jolt in the small of his back, his knees buckled and he fell to the ground. He heard shots behind him, and could see the flashing lights from the police car. The sound of gunfire made him fear that he would be shot. He felt an overwhelming urge to remove himself from this danger, but couldn’t move. Every few seconds, he would recover the use of his legs, but after a few strides, another jolt would drive him to the ground. Eventually, a gun was placed at the back of his head, a voice (he thought it was the deputy) told him that, if he moved, he would die, and cuffs were fastened around his wrists. He lay in this position for what seemed an eternity (it was probably just a few minutes). Eventually, two police officers dragged him across the field (his still couldn’t walk) to a Hearne Police Department vehicle where he was searched and questioned. An EMT was summoned to remove a Taser barb from his back. He was transferred to a second Hearne PD vehicle, and driven to the County Jail in nearby Cameron, the seat of Milam County.
Deputy Chris White’s version of the story is remarkably different. In part, this is because of perspective. Cooks was facedown in the mud; White was standing over him. The version of the story related at trial assumed that, although White fired his Taser, it had no effect. Instead, when White commanded the suspect to show him his hands, Cooks, jerked and appeared to roll from his back to his front. Although White never saw a gun, he says that, as he fled the scene, he could hear two shots fired at him.
Here’s the odd thing: White didn’t remember having fired his Taser. As he passed between the fence and the hood of his car, he saw the wires dangling from the Taser in his hand.
There are two distinct segments to the official story: the initial encounter (in which Cooks fired two shots as White fled behind his vehicle), and a second scene in which, while crouched behind his car, White saw Cooks on the run, retracing his steps across the field toward the Mercedes. According to this account, White fired twice (which is why two shell casings from his .45 caliber sidearm were found at the scene) and Cooks collapsed, lying motionless on the ground until Shawn Sayers, a Hearne PD officer, arrived to make the actual arrest.
With Cooks firmly ensconced in a Hearne PD vehicle, and officers from several different agencies arrived on the scene, White told them that he saw a gun, he fired his Taser, then “the shots started coming”. At trial, he admitted that he had been confused. He never saw the gun; he just heard the shots.
The dozen-or-so officers gathered in the field spent the next forty-five minutes trying to find Cooks’ gun. If two shots had been fired, there had to be a weapon, but even when bright headlights illuminated the scene, no weapon was discovered.
White insists that the Taser had no effect on Cooks. If it had, he says, the suspect would have been unable to turn and fire two shots. Nor, in the second segment of the official story, would Cooks have been able to race back across the field.
You might think this issue could easily be resolved. If an EMT had removed a Taser barb from Cooks’ back, and if two officers had been forced to drag him to a Hearne PD vehicle because he couldn’t walk, the official story could be disproved. Right?
Unfortunately, none of the officers who made the arrest or directed Cooks to the police car were ever questioned. Presumably, they all filed incident reports, but, when I sent out FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, I was informed that, due to a computer crash, all incident reports filed prior to 2020 have been lost. Similarly, no EMT agency in the vicinity has records dating back to 2009.
My quest for information wasn’t a complete bust, however. Responding to an email, Shawn Sayers, the Hearne PD officer who made the actual arrest, called me one morning while I was preparing the family breakfast. He told me that Chris White was a standup officer and JeJuan Cooks was a notorious trouble maker, so, whatever White told me about his encounter with Cooks, I could take it to the bank. But when I gave Sayers a brief summary of the official story, he told me to hold up. “That’s not the way it happened,” he told me.
Sayers and a fellow officer had laid tack strips at the Port Sullivan Bridge, a couple of miles east of the Cooks-White altercation. When they got White’s call for backup, they raced to the scene. As Sayers exited his vehicle, Shaun Cooks wasn’t lying facedown in the mud; he was up and running along the fence line. Then, for no apparent reason, the suspect took a “swan dive” into the dirt.
When I asked if Chris White had fired his weapon at the fleeing suspect, Sayers replied in the negative. The shooting, he insisted, was all over by that point.
Sayers says he raced after the suspect, placed his gun to his head, and warned him not to move. Then, just as in Cooks’ account, he snapped on the cuffs. Without realizing it, Sayers had corroborated Cooks’ version of the encounter down to the last detail.
How do we explain the radical disconnect between Sayers’ account and White’s memory of the same encounter?
It is possible, of course, that White is lying; but it’s highly unlikely. White has a well-earned reputation as a straight shooter. On the witness stand, he freely admitted that he never saw a gun in Cooks’ hand. He admitted that he had no memory of firing his Taser. He couldn’t even remember who eventually found the gun. Liars don’t admit they were wrong, especially when no one can prove otherwise.
A gun was found at the scene. Lying up against the fence. In plain sight. In the exact location that a dozen curious police officers, aided by headlights and flashlights, had searched diligently for forty-five minutes. The incident took place at approximately 1:00 am. Jay Beathard, the man tasked with investigating the matter, wasn’t awakened until 1:30, and didn’t arrive on the scene until a few minutes after 2:00 am.
Fortunately, the dashcam in White’s vehicle kept running until Beathard collected it as evidence, which means that much of the conversation between the officers on the scene was captured on that VHS tape. Unfortunately, the existence of this longer tape wasn’t disclosed to Cooks until the verge of trial. At that point, the District Attorney argued that only the first few minutes (the part that recorded gunfire) should be preserved for trial. The judge concurred. JeJuan Cooks was never allowed to hear that tape. Now, I am told, the recording no longer exists.
Still worse, the short version of the tape had been transferred from VHS to a digital format, a process susceptible to endless manipulation. The tape records two bursts of gunfire separated by exactly thirteen seconds. The camera captured nothing except officer White crossing in front of the vehicle, four seconds after the initial shots were fired. Nine seconds later, two more shots are heard.
Here’s the problem. In the official story, White fires his weapon twice, Cooks falls and lies motionless. White keeps his gun trained on Cooks, radios for assistance, then waits for backup to arrive. In Sayers’ version, there is no gunfire, Cooks runs, he falls, he is immediately arrested. In Sayers’ version, White is completely passive and therefore incidental to the arrest.
Brain Science sharpens a blurry picture
Adrenaline is a wonderful memory enhancer. That’s why we have particularly vivid memories of events charged with emotion. But if a traumatic encounter floods the mind with too much adrenaline, the conscious memory is so overwhelmed it shuts down. And when that happens, memory is no longer linear or sequential (one thing after another). All we remember are impressions, emotions and odd details (like seeing the Taser wires in the headlights). The order of events, and a sense of who did what to whom, is lost. There is no clear one-thing-after-another sequence.
Two aspects of a police officer’s life experience are particularly likely to play havoc with memory: high-speed chases and an encounter with a possibly-armed suspect. Put the two back-to-back and the potential for what is called “dissociative amnesia” is particularly great. That’s why we speak of PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to Bessell van der Kolk, author of the bestselling The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, describes two areas of the human brain that, under conditions, work together to preserve memories. The first area “provides a sense of time and perspective”; the second “integrates the images, sounds, and sensations of trauma into a coherent story.”
When the parts of the brain that controls sequence is knocked out, van der Kolk, says, “you experience something not as an event with a beginning, a middle, and an end but in fragments of sensations, images, and emotions.” Or, as Michael Bricker puts it, “Trauma can shutdown episodic memory and fragment the sequence of events.” The technical term for this loss and distortion of memory is “dissociative amnesia”.
Eventually, large portions of a traumatic event may be recovered, but often in a highly unreliable form that is subject to distortion. Deryn Strane and Melanie Takarangi express the scholarly consensus when they warn that the accuracy of recovered traumatic memories are always open to question because “people may inadvertently generate additional imagery relating to those traces that fits the experienced event.” In other words, we remember what we think must have happened. “Those non-experienced thoughts and images,” the authors assert, “may become just as familiar as those that were experienced.”
This is important because, if Chris White eventually recovered a connected memory of what happened on December 20th, 2009, it would feel like an accurate memory even if all he was “remembering” was the sequence of events that he and agent Beathard worked out after the fact. In his work with PTSD patients, Bessell van der Kolk isn’t too worried about the accuracy of recovered memory so long as they allow a patient to identify a traumatic recollection as a past event that doesn’t have to determine present reality. But when a false memory puts an innocent man in prison for life, accuracy is essential.
The PTSD diagnosis is appropriate for only 8% of the American population, and most of those suffering from PTSD do not experience dissociative amnesia. Soldiers and police officers are particularly prone to severe memory disruption, however, due to the unusually stressful, and frequently traumatic nature of their experience. Since police officers are often called to testify in court, this creates a problem that has rarely been addressed.
Dissociative Amnesia can put innocent people in prison
Chris White couldn’t remember firing his Taser. Suppose he had drawn his .45 and fired two warning shots immediately after exiting his vehicle. Would he have remembered doing so? No. If he was suffering from dissociative amnesia, he would only remember the sound of gunfire and the feeling of dread; he wouldn’t remember the source of the sound, the sequence of events, or who did what to whom.
If Shawn Sayers is correct, Chris White’s belief that he fired two shots after a fleeing suspect is incorrect. Sayers’ memory is sharp because it was accompanied by a rush of adrenaline strong enough to enhance recall, but not strong enough to scramble and disconnect memory. As Bessell van der Kolk explains in The Body Keeps the Score, “The imprints of traumatic experiences are organized not as coherent logical narratives but in fragmented sensory and emotional traces: images, sounds, and physical sensations.”
The police officers who testified at Cooks’ trial (all members of the Milam County Sheriff’s Department) noted that White appeared to be coming down from “an adrenaline dump”. In other words, he appeared confused. For instance, he immediately reported seeing a gun, only to realize, upon reflection, that he hadn’t. He experienced an overwhelming sense of threat, violation, and imminent danger and shifted into fight-or-flight mode. His rational mind shut down, his “lizard brain” fired up, and he ran for his life. This is not a sign of cowardice. In fact, he had no conscious control over the process.
There can be no doubt that JeJuan Cooks was temporarily incapacitated by White’s Taser. Even the version of the story related at trial describes a young and athletic Cooks inexplicably folding up like a cheap card table on two separate occasions. At trial, White recalled that he kept pulling the trigger on his Taser while he was behind his vehicle. A Taser incapacitates for approximately five seconds, but every time the trigger is pulled, another jolt of electricity courses through the wires. And remember, only 13 seconds separated the initial confrontation from Cooks’ final “swan dive”.
Cooks reports that White fired his Taser immediately after stepping out of his car. This would account for the first collapse White related at trial. It wasn’t as if White’s memory of the encounter was entirely blank; the problem is that some details dropped out entirely while others became hopelessly disjointed.
Was the gun planted?
Maybe not, but it’s the only theory that makes sense.
There are two phases to White’s account: what happened before he dashed behind his patrol car, and what happened after. If White didn’t discharge his weapon after running behind his vehicle, he must have fired it before his dash for safety.
As a young black ex-offender who sold illegal drugs for a living, JeJuan Cooks was used to getting pulled over and searched. It was a regular occurrence. So, why would he be carrying a gun on the evening in question? And why, after he fell to the ground, would he turn and fire two shots at a police officer at pointblank range? His long-term chances of escape were nil, and he knew it. Secondly, shooting at a cop means life in prison. He knew that too.
And if JeJuan did fire his gun at a man standing three feet away, how could he possibly miss? He might have missed once, but twice? When the first officers arrived on the scene, White immediately asked to be examined for gunshot wounds. He honestly believed that Cooks had fired his weapon. He didn’t just believe it, he knew it! And at that range, nobody misses twice. He didn’t feel anything; but he knew from experience how adrenaline masks pain.
It is also troubling that none of the forensic protocols police officers typically employ after shooting events were followed. Neither Cooks nor his alleged weapon were tested for gunshot residue (GSR) or fingerprints. The gun wasn’t traced to Cooks but to an unrelated Hearne resident. No attempt was made to trace the weapon any further.
But here’s the huge problem. None of the Hearne PD officers involved in the arrest were interviewed or subpoenaed to testify at trial. Hearne is located on the east side of the Brazos River, in Robertson County. The deputies who did testify worked for the Milam County Sheriffs Department, they arrived late at the scene, and they had no direct knowledge of the White-Cooks encounter. No independent firearms expert was asked to evaluate the evidence. The officer that arrested Cooks, the officers who dragged him to a Hearne PD police car, the officers who initially questioned and searched Cooks, and the officer who drove him to Cameron were never interviewed about the incident. Could it be that, like Shawn Sayers, they would have contradicted large swathes of the official story? Almost certainly.
The official story presented at trial explained why Cooks stopped firing. A shell casing hadn’t been expelled properly creating what is called a “stovepipe jam”. In a classic stovepipe jam, the shell casing sticks straight up like a stovepipe. Moreover, Jay Beathard testified that a new round was been chambered and ready to fire; something highly unlikely, perhaps impossible, since a jam would have prevented the next bullet from being properly seated in the chamber. This video explains the mechanics involved.
The origins of the official story
In the absence of corroborating testimony from Hearne PD officers, Jay Beathard had only Chris White’s disjointed recollections to work with. White could remember “images, sounds, and physical sensations,” but had few solid facts to offer.
But an incident report had to be written, to White and Beathard pieced together what probably happened. White couldn’t remember firing his Taser, but he must have done so. He couldn’t remember seeing a gun, but Cooks must have been armed. Cooks was up and running just before his arrest, so he couldn’t have been incapacitated.
We know White and Beathard created, then scrapped, a rough draft of the official story. In this account, Cooks didn’t shoot at White while lying on the ground; the shots came while Cooks was running across the field toward the parked Mercedes. This version of the story appeared the next day in the Bryan Eagle:
While running, Cooks fired two shots from a pistol, authorities said. The Milam County deputy returned fire, investigators said. Neither the deputy nor Cooks was hit in the exchange, but Cooks fell to the ground and was arrested.
The telltale phrases are “authorities said” and “investigators said.” The news story was a verbatim quote from a press release composed by Jay Beathard and Chris White. The detail about Cooks firing on the run was quickly dropped, however, likely because Shawn Sayers, who had witnessed that part of the action, might take issue. So the shots allegedly fired by Cooks were pushed back to the part of the story before White made his dash for safety.
This created its own share of problems. If Cooks rolled in White’s direction, and if White responded by firing his Taser, how could he have missed seeing the gun? It’s very hard to imagine how the official sequence of events unfolded. If an officer thinks a suspect is armed, he may pull his Taser, but not before he has unholstered his firearm. You keep your eyes glued on the suspect. Under no circumstances would you turn your back.
Still, with no one but a disreputable drug dealer to contradict the story, the official story was reasonably secure.
But if a gun was planted, we must ask by whom, and why? The officers gathered at the scene didn’t understand how PTSD can mess with memory. In particular, they weren’t reckoning with the possibility of dissociative amnesia. All they knew was that a trusted officer believed two shots were fired at him, and he ought to know. This explains the intense search for the weapon—it had to be somewhere. The possibility that White’s memory had been dismantled by what they called “adrenaline dump” wasn’t part of the conversation.
And this is where things get interesting. Imagine the anger the officers at the scene were feeling toward JeJuan Cooks. The man is a notorious drug dealer who, for years has been frustrating every attempt to bring him down. He showed defiance and disrespect by driving away from a police stop. He had endangered the lives of two young women and a tiny child. He was a black man out late with white women. Worst of all, he just tried to kill one of their own. White worked for the Hearne PD early in career and was on a first-name basis with most of the officers at the scene.
Then comes the brutal realization: if we can’t find the damn gun, attempted murder charges are off the table.
Whoever planted the gun didn’t believe that he or she was framing an innocent man; they were simply ensuring that a bad actor got what was coming to him. Cooks tells me that, as he was being dragged to the police car, one officer on the scene said, “You’re lucky. If I had made the arrest, you’d still be lying in that field.” I suspect there were dozens of statements along that line captured by the device in White’s car. Just another reason for ensuring that the longer tape was never played at trial.
It is entirely possible that Chris White ever questioned the legitimacy of the gun Jay Beathard found moments after arriving on the scene. White believed (and likely still believes) that shots had been fired at him, so there had to be a gun somewhere.
At the time of his encounter with JeJuan Cooks in 2009, Chris White was an investigator with the Milam County Sheriff’s Department. When David Greene died in 2018, white became Sheriff. He stood for re-election in 2020, winning in a landslide. Then, on March 1, 2021, White walked into the Milam County Sheriff’s Office and, without a word of explanation, turned in his gun and his badge. He didn’t give a month’s notice. He didn’t give a week’s notice. He quit on the spot. The press release sent to local media attributed White’s sudden resignation to unspecified “personal reasons”.
There had been no signs of sexual or financial impropriety, the sort of issues that typically crash a lawman’s career. White’s decision inspired a lot of head scratching.
White went into a temporary retirement, even erasing his once-substantial social media presence. Then, after a twenty-one-month sabbatical, he signed on as the new police chief of West, Texas, population, 2,531, in mid-November, 2023.
It wasn’t long before false reports were circulating on social media. According to an extensive article produced by KWTX News in Waco, “Rumors abound that White is not a certified peace officer and is under investigation by the Texas Rangers and investigators from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. There also have been posts that seasoned officers have quit because of White and that a West City Council member resigned over White’s actions since taking office.”
The motivation behind these malicious rumors is difficult to pinpoint, but White’s long stretch of unemployment encouraged speculation. People wanted to know why a man would trade in a job as a Texas Sheriff responsible for 40 officers, to become a police chief in a small town overseeing a staff one-tenth the size?
“I left to focus on my family because I had neglected my family” White told the KWTX reporter. “You can be married or you can be sheriff. I chose to be married.”
This is a reasonable explanation. So far as it goes. Police work of any kind takes a toll on a marriage, although some argue this is no more true of police work than of other forms of high-stress work. But if White didn’t want to be Sheriff, why didn’t he simply refuse to stand for re-election? And why not provide the department with a brief transition period?
In all likelihood, White abruptly stepped away from law enforcement because he was simply unable to continue. In his book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, therapist Resmaa Menakem describes a series of training sessions he led for the Minneapolis Police Department that were designed “to reduce and avoid unnecessary stress, both on and off the job; and to deliberately settle their bodies under a wide range of circumstances.” He quickly discovered that the men he was working with had never received help with these issues. They were on their own.
“In their work, Menakem says, “many police officers experience moral injury or have witnessed it in their coworkers. Unfortunately, very few manage to metabolize this shame and trauma; few are even aware of it, let alone of what they need to do to metabolize it; and still fewer receive encouragement or support from their coworkers, superiors, or organizational structures.”
As a consequence, he says, when White officers confront a suspect from a poverty-stricken Black neighborhood, “it is often a case of repeatedly traumatized bodies confronting other repeatedly traumatized bodies.”
We all know the stories about White officers shooting Black suspects with little or no provocation. “Something triggers a person’s trauma;” Menakem writes, “his or her lizard brain instantly launches a fight response; and the person physically or emotionally harms whomever is nearby.” But what if the officer’s “lizard brain” triggers a flight response? That’s what happened to Chris White. Fearful that the Tazed man lying at his feet was holding a gun, White likely fired warning shots, then fled for safety. He couldn’t remember discharging his firearm any more than he recalled firing his Taser. But he remembered the sound of gunfire coupled with the emotion of deep dread.
Convinced that the Black suspect really had fired two shots at Chris White, and unable to find the weapon, somebody produced what police officers call a “throw down gun”. Next, Jay Beathard and White recreated the scene as it must have happened. But there are signs that they were uncomfortable with the gun produced at trial. That’s why neither the suspect nor the gun was tested for GSR. That’s why no great effort was made to recover the shell casings from the suspect’s 9mm. And Beathard and White feared that crucial aspects of their recreated version of events might get pushback from first responders who remembered differently, which is why men like Shawn Sayers were never interviewed after the fact or subpoenaed to testify.
The case against JeJuan Cooks was never intended to go to trial. A plea agreement of 15 years was proposed, and both Beathard and White dropped by Cooks’ cell, urging him to take the deal. The officers at the heart of this story had good reason to fear a trial. First, Cooks was almost certain to be found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. They wanted him to suffer serious consequences, but they didn’t intend to derail his life. Second, they feared that defense counsel might ask the obvious questions or, still worse, interview the Hearne PD officers and subpoena them to testify.
If JeJuan Cooks really had fired two shots at Chris White, he would have embraced the plea offer with joy and gladness. Instead, against the protestations of two defense attorneys (the one Cooks fired and the one who took over on the verge of trial), the defendant insisted on his day in court.
Had he taken the deal, Cooks would now be out on parole. Instead, he faces a lifetime behind bars. Some police officers manufacture bogus prosecution without a twinge of conscience; Chris White is not that kind of officer. If he knew the case against Cooks was deeply flawed, or if he simply feared it might be, his uneasiness would grow with the passing years.
I have described what I know or strongly suspect. But there is much I don’t know. Chris White might already have been suffering from PTSD long before his encounter with Cooks in 2009. It is also possible that that the trauma associated with the Cooks-White encounter was just one in a series of morally ambiguous episodes that piled up over the years like driftwood on the shore. We can be reasonably sure that White didn’t resign simply because he had neglected his family.
Officers suffering from PTSD are typically haunted by memories so intense, they feel like present reality. In order to cope, most often drink heavily, or get hooked on pain pills, gambling, sexual misadventure. A devout Christian with high personal standards, White may have dodged those bullets. But the moral injury at the heart of PTSD will always interfere with basic human functioning.
How this played out in White’s life, I can’t say. But PTSD symptoms inevitably impact friends, co-workers and intimate relationships. And, when it got so bad he couldn’t abide one more second of torment, White suddenly stepped away from the stress. There was no other choice. He had hit a wall. As he says, he could maintain a marriage or he could be Sheriff; he couldn’t do both.
Where from Here?
I have made a strong case that JeJuan Cooks didn’t attempt to murder Chris White in the early hours of December 20th, 2009. The evidence strongly suggests that Chris White had no reliable memory of what took place that night. The narrative Beathard and White cobbled together simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Tragically, it was never subjected to careful scrutiny where it counts—in a court of law. And once the judge’s gavel rang down, it became frightfully difficult to fix what was broken. That is especially true now that most of the meaningful evidence has been destroyed. As noted previously, I have tried to access the longer version of the audio recording, and relevant incident reports, and EMS records. I have come up empty.
As a consequence, the only person with the power to release JeJuan Cooks from prison is Chris White himself. I realize that’s a hard sell. None of us like to be second-guessed, and I have been second-guessing Chris White for well over two years now. To complicate matters, White is currently being bombarded by a wide range of conspiracy theories untethered from reality. It would be all too easy to dismiss my theory of this case as just one more crank revealing his ignorance.
When police officers and prosecutors are questioned about past cases, the typical response is some variation of “the jury heard the evidence and handed down their verdict. It’s out of my hands.” On the surface, this sounds sensible. All things being equal, jury verdicts should be final.
But what if all things aren’t equal? What if the none of the evidence that could have reduced the state’s case to a pile of rubble was presented at trial? Tragically, that is the reality we are dealing with.
JeJuan Cooks fired Rick Guzman, his first attorney, on the verge of trial because he refused to argue that Cooks didn’t have a gun. Cooks attempted to fire his second attorney, Clyde Chandler, for the same reason, a request that was refused. It wasn’t so much that Guzman and Chandler thought their client was lying; they simply refused to intimate to a deep-red Milam County jury that a sheriff’s deputy might be lying. At trial, Chandler stressed his close working relationship with the district attorney and deputies White and Beathard. Since he failed to make a case for innocence, Chandler might might as well have argued that his client was guilty as charged.
The appeals process followed a similar pattern. Bill Torrey, the attorney appointed to file Mr. Cooks’ appeal, was running for district attorney on a law-and-order platform. Torrey simply filed an Anders brief to the Texas Court of Criminal appeals stating that there were no non-frivolous grounds for appeal. Having reviewed the trial transcript, the appeals court agreed. Since Cooks’ attorney had failed to attack the state’s case in the slightest particular, this was not surprising. The Texas appeals court is elected in a partisan process and leans hard right. As I write, all nine members of the court are Republican.
Tom Abate, the next attorney on the scene, initially agreed to argue that Cooks was unarmed, but mysteriously withdrew that argument at the last moment. When Cooks asked for an explanation, Abate refused to speak with him.
That’s the bleak legal reality JeJuan Cooks is up against. Which is why only Chris White can provide meaningful assistance, however unlikely that may appear.
I have only one request for Mr. White. Read what I have written. And if you think I might be right, call me up or shoot me a text or email. I would happily drive the eighty-four miles to West, Texas in order to talk things out over a cup of coffee. Or, if you prefer, just call up Bill Torrey and tell him you believe a tragic mistake has been made. The Milam DA won’t listen to me (he was, after all, the attorney who filed the Anders brief). But he will listen to you. I await your response.