The retrial of a former death row inmate charged with raping and killing a
University of Delaware student in 2005 got off to a rocky start Wednesday, with
the judge warning defendant James Cooke Jr. that he may lose the right to
represent himself if he continues to disregard the court's directions.
Cooke, who has repeatedly quarreled with lawyers appointed to represent him and
is presenting his own defense, insisted in his opening statement to jurors that
the judge and prosecutors are the ones guilty of misconduct, suggesting that he
is the target of a racially motivated conspiracy.
"I don't have a story, I have the truth," Cooke told jurors.
"This is a racial trial," he added. "... We know a white victim has been
deceased. A black person has been racially charged."
Cooke, 41, was sentenced to death in 2007 for the slaying of Lindsey Bonistall,
20, of White Plains, N.Y.
The Delaware Supreme Court overturned Cooke's conviction and death sentence in
2009 because his lawyers, without Cooke's consent and despite his repeated
claims of innocence, argued that he was guilty but mentally ill.
The U.S. Supreme Court later rejected a petition from Attorney General Beau
Biden's office challenging the state Supreme Court's decision.
Prosecutors began the retrial as they did Cooke's original trial, telling
jurors that overwhelming scientific evidence and witness testimony will
convince them that Cooke is guilty.
"Lindsey Bonistall can't tell you what happened to her. ... The evidence will
speak for her, as it speaks to you," prosecutor Steve Wood told jurors.
The state will show the odds that DNA found in Bonistall's body is not Cooke's
is 1 in 167 quintillion, and that the odds that skin cells found underneath her
fingernails were not from Cooke are 1 in 640 billion, Wood said.
Cooke, 34, began his opening statement by telling jurors that he is the father
of 14 children, that he has not been convicted of a violent crime, and
suggesting that he and Bonistall were friends, even though he is seen in
excerpts of a videotaped police interrogation shown by Woods repeatedly denying
that he knew anybody named Lindsey.
"We got to know each other," Cooke told jurors, complaining that Judge Charles
Toliver IV has refused to allow him to talk about Bonistall's drug use. Cooke's
references to Bonistall's alleged drug use, and to his own criminal record,
violated the court's previous rulings regarding evidentiary issues, drawing a
quick objection from Wood and prompting Toliver to order the jury out of the
Toliver then warned Cooke that he risked losing the right to represent himself,
and possibly even to be present in the courtroom, if he continued to violate
the court's rules.
"You have a choice to make," Toliver said.
After the jurors were brought back, a frustrated Cooke told them that the court
had "bound" him from telling the truth and urged them not to pay attention to
the evidence, as the prosecution had suggested.
"I say please don't do that ... because there's foul play going on here," he
said. "... If you don't hear from me, it's not because I'm guilty. It's because
Prosecutors say Cooke broke into Bonistall's off-campus apartment and raped and
strangled her before placing her body in a bathtub and setting the apartment on
fire. According to prosecutors, Cooke later called a 911 dispatcher and
provided details about the killing, as well as 2 burglaries at nearby
residences just days before, prosecutors said.
The 911 caller, which prosecutors intend to prove was Cooke, suggested that
Bonistall's death was part of a drug war involving white supremacists. The
voice on the tape also referred to "KKK" and "White Power" graffiti found in
In a possible foretaste of things to come, the first witness called in Cooke's
retrial was left exasperated and confused by Cooke's rambling and often
incoherent cross-examination, which came more in the form of arguments and
statements than questions and left the judge and prosecutors confused as well.
Ryan Sims, a former maintenance supervisor at Bonistall's apartment complex who
lived in a unit above hers, testified about how he responded to the fire and
changed the lock on her apartment door a couple of hours afterward to keep
Cooke seemed fixated on how Sims changed the lock, asking him how he positioned
his body when doing so and how well he could see.
"It's not rocket science. I changed the deadbolt, dude," a frustrated Sims told
Cooke, drawing a warning from the judge to both men about their behavior.
(source: Associated Press)