TYLER, Texas (KETK) – Dr. Nancy Nichols addressed the Smith County Commissioners Court on Tuesday to draw attention to what she says is the need for criminal justice reform.
“Today I am here to address a serious problem. Smith County Texas has international notoriety for the Machiavellian justice system that exists here. I can site the cases of Kerry Max Cook, Ed Ates and A.B. Butler to name the most widely recognized cases of wrongful convictions, but we know these cases are the tip of the iceberg,” said her statement.
She said too often innocent people are prosecuted and evidence that points to one’s innocence is overlooked.
“Prosecutors and police officers have tough jobs. Sometimes they make honest mistakes. But we also know that there have been many times when DNA evidence and other facts have been ignored,” she said. “Outright misconduct has played a role in more than half of the 2,400-plus exonerations documented nationwide over the last 30 years. Unfortunately it appears that prosecutors can misbehave without consequences for their actions.”
Criminal justice reform is supported by both conservatives and progressives and that the goal is to reduce the number of Americans who are behind bars, she said.
“That number is more than 2 million,” she said. “Another goal is to hold prosecutors and detectives found to have committed misconduct accountable and levy consequences with the overall plan to set a standard that avoids unjust convictions.”
She pointed to an report in The New York Times that shows black men, more than others, are wrongly convicted of murder.
“So, how does that pertain to the Commissioners Court?” she asked. “Racial inequality is found in every aspect of our culture here in Smith County. It is visible in our roads and sidewalks, our schools, medical care. It’s no secret. That is why I am bringing this to the court. It is up to each of us in our own individual roles and jobs to recognize the severe imbalance and take genuine steps to bring racial equality to our community. That is especially true for you who are in leadership positions.”
As Nichols spoke others who share her concerns about the need for criminal justice reform were gathered on the downtown Tyler square drawing attention to their cause.
She said recent high visibility cases across the nation has drawn attention to this issue and that many people who would like to see such reforms are now speaking out.
Below are the three cases that Nichols referenced as being examples of criminal misjustice in Smith County.
Butler was convicted in 1983 in Smith County of aggravated kidnapping. In May 2000, after Butler spent nearly 17 years in jail, Gov. George W. Bush pardoned Butler after DNA testing of evidence proved Butler’s innocence, According to the Innocence Project and other sources,.
A woman, reported that she had been abducted from a parking lot, raped and forced to drive to a rural area. The victim identified Butler from a lineup and during the trial as her assailant. Butler’s attorney presented witnesses who claimed that he was with them when the assault occurred.
Butler was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based organization dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions, began working on Butler’s case in 1995. Biological evidence was located. Attorneys at the Innocence Project also consulted on the case.
In 1999, semen evidence in the case was tested. The results excluded Butler as the source of the semen.
Based on these results, the prosecution and Butler’s attorney filed for clemency. Butler was released in January 2000 and his pardon was granted in May 2000.
In 1993, 19-year-old Ed Ates was living in New Chapel Hill with his grandmother and just two houses away from 47-year-old Elnora Griffin. On July 23, Griffin was founddead in her trailer. She had been stabbed and attacked.
Someone told investigators that Ates had been at her house on the day she died. Ates did not seem to have a good alibi. Smith County prosecutors charged Ates with Griffins’ murder.
His first trial in 1996 ended in a hung jury. According to the Texas Innocence project, during the retrial in 1998, one of Ates’ former cellmates testified Ates wanted him to say another inmate had confessed to killing Griffin. The jury found Ates guilty and sentenced him to 99 years in prison.
In 2015 Bob Ruff, who had a podcast about possible wrong convictions, drew attention to Ates’ case.
Those looking into the case became convinced that Ates was innocent. The Smith County District Attorney’s Office eventually agreed to DNA testing of several items from the scene of crime that been stored as evidence. boxes.
Although Ates was never found innocent, a parole board granted his release from prison. Ates continues to maintain his innocence.
KERRY MAX COOK
On June 6, 2016, murder charges were dropped against Kerry Max Cook, a Tyler man convicted in 1978 of murdering a woman. Cook spent 22 years on Death Row.
Cook was convicted in Smith County for the murder of Linda Jo Edwards in a Tyler apartment complex. Cook has been out of jail since 1998 after taking a deal that convicted him of murder but did not require him to admit guilt.
Matt Bingham, who was the Smith County district attorney, later agreed to drop the murder charge after it was learned a key witness admitted to lying in previous trials.
In 2009, Cook wrote “Chasing Justice,” an account of his prosecution and his battles to prove his innocence.
He is one of six people whose stories were dramatized in the play “The Exonerated.” The play was later made into a movie.
Kerry Cook is portrayed by Aidan Quinn and also talks in the film about his experience and the reason he wrote the book.