This is the story of how a rural Texas county transformed a shockingly weak case into a popularity contest. When the evidence was silenced it was just a question of who the jury trusted more: a popular lawman, or a convicted felon. Defense attorneys called no witnesses and refused to put the defendant on the stand. Allowed to testify, Shaun Cooks would have accused law enforcement of planting and tampering with evidence. In Milam County, nobody is allowed to question the police. If defense attorneys can’t do it, defendants certainly can’t. This series of posts presents the simple case that was silenced at trial and places the wrongful conviction of Mr. Cooks in historical and social context.
“Officer White did okay out there tonight,” Beathard explained, “but he didn’t do good enough because, if he had, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.”
JeJuan Shauntel Cooks is a prisoner in the Eastham Unit in Lovelady, Texas. Ten years ago, he was sentenced to life in prison for allegedly firing two shots at a Milam County Sheriff’s Deputy. Cooks insists he couldn’t have committed the crime because he wasn’t carrying a gun. A gun was discovered at the scene of the incident, but it was never tested for fingerprints, DNA or gunshot residue. To his amazement, Cooks was unable to find a defense attorney willing to challenge the word of a respected sheriff’s deputy. This narrative will explain how, and why, our criminal justice system silences poor people of color.
Shaun Cooks One: Five Days to Christmas
“Seeing the high beams in the distance, Cooks took his foot off the gas. He was driving under the speed limit, he says, but didn’t want to take any chances. It was just five days to Christmas. After that, they could do whatever they wanted to him. But not tonight.”
Shaun Cooks 2: Five Conflicting Accounts
After a high-speed chase covering fifteen miles, Shaun Cooks stopped near the intersection of FM 484 and CR 260, and raced across a pasture. Shaun would have had time to hop the fence and disappear into the darkness if Deputy Chris White had followed him on foot. Instead, White drove across the muddy field, parking just to the right of Cooks. There are five versions of what happened next and they don’t agree on much. Read post here.
Shaun Cooks 3: Mayhem and Memory: Is Chris White a Reliable Witness?
Sheriff’s Deputy Chris White insists that Shaun Cooks fired two shots at him at close range. Cooks claims he never touched a gun the night of the incident. Someone is lying. Right? Not necessarily. Read post here.
Shaun Cooks 4: Flimsy Evidence
This looks like an open-shut case until you start asking hard questions. Then everything falls apart with alarming speed.
Shaun Cooks 5: The sorry Lawyer Syndrome
Attorneys who merely go through the motions are rarely chastised. In fact, their lack of diligence is appreciated. A vigorous defense means a long trial and added expense.
Read post here
Shaun Cooks 6: A Legal Lynching
Was what happened to Shaun Cooks in the Milam County Courthouse all that different from Alex Johnson’s lynching in 1907? If so, was the difference in kind, or merely in degree?
Read the post here
Shaun Cook 7: Peeling back the wallpaper
For those who feel a bit intimidated by the twists, turns and complexity of the Shaun Cooks story, I offer a simple summary that will give you the big picture. At no additional cost, I explain why fighting a wrongful conviction is a lot like peeling back wallpaper, layer-by-layer. Read post here.
The picture above was taken within a mile of the spot where Shaun Cooks had his fateful encounter with Chris White. Nothing but 150 years of hard history separate the two realities. Read post here.
A little background . . .
Ken Paxton should be in prison. Instead, he has emerged as a conservative icon. The same is true of John Paschall, the District Attorney who first put Shaun Cooks in prison. These men evade justice by being the right kind of criminal.
Shaun Cooks 10: The Most corrupt police force in Texas
John Paschall ran Robertson County, Texas, like it was his own private fiefdom. Every year, the narcotics task force he ran rounded up dozens of Black men on the poor side of town. Everyone was convicted, and hardly anybody took a chance with the jury. All that ended when the drug sweep of 2000 ended so badly that Hollywood made a movie about it. Read the story here.
When Shaun Cooks was first arrested in 1996, no evidence connected him to a crime. That was no obstacle for John Paschall. If he wanted to put you in prison, he found a way.
After serving five years in prison, Shaun Cooks was finally released. He was determined to live out the rest of his days in the free world. That meant going straight. Shaun gave it his best shot, but wound up back on the streets. If you’re wondering how that could happen, you need to read this post.
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