Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Trial of the Week: Minnesota Viking Chris Cook's Felony Domestic Assault Trial

From time to time, I'll be doing a segment here that I call Trial of the Week.  Basically, I'll give you a rundown of the trial going on in the state of Minnesota that I find most interesting.  I'd like to say I plan on making this a weekly thing, but more likely it will be every month or so.  Maybe I should call it Trial of the Month?  Whatever.

This week, we'll take a look at the trial of Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook.  Cook was charged with felony domestic assault and 3rd degree assault in conjuction with an alleged incident between Cook and his girlfriend in October of 2011.  Cook was put on leave from the team and missed the rest of the season.

Initially, the crux of the case against Cook was the statement given by Cook's girlfriend that the defensive back hit and choked her, leaving her with scratches and bruising around her neck, swelling in her face, and a ruptured eardrum.  The injuries allowed prosecutors to charge Cook with the aggravated 3rd degree assault as opposed to a more common 5th degree charge, meaning that both charges he faces can result in more than a year in jail, plus significant fines.

The prosecution had to feel good about this case initially, but those good feelings might be washing away.  Not only did Hennepin County prosecutors have the testimony of the girlfriend, Chantel Baker, who claimed that Cook viciously attacked her, but also the forensic evidence to back it up with the bruises, scratches, swelling, and injury to the ear drum.

Recently, Ms. Baker has recanted her original explanation to the police.  She now says that Cook never strangled her, and that she only claimed he did because she was mad at him and wanted him to go to jail.  She claims to have immediately regretted her lie and felt guilt over her false representations.

Now that Baker's testimony was something of a question mark, the prosecution would have to lean more heavily on the forensic evidence.  Unfortunately for them, that evidence took a bit of a hit yesterday, as well.  Cook's defense team introduced an expert witness who testified that the marks on Baker's neck were not consistent with injuries one would sustain during an attempted strangulation.  The defense's alternate theory of how the marks got on Baker's neck involved her earring leaving the scratches, and the bruising being attributable to hickeys given to her by Cook.  This, coupled with Cook's testimony that Baker attacked him first, causing him to hit her in self defense (which is what the defense claims caused the ruptured ear drum), means that all the evidence prosecutors expected to use has a reasonable defense against it.

In order for the felony convictions to stick against Cook, the prosecution will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that not only did Cook physically assault Baker, but that his assault is what caused the injuries she sustained.  However, if the jury believes Cook's account of the evening, his claim of self defense would act as an affirmative defense to the charges and exonerate him from any legal wrongdoing.

So, what's my take on this?  Well, the jury went into deliberation today, so we should hear something final by the end of the week.  If I were the prosecutor on this case, I'd offer up a plea of misdemeanor domestic assault and 5th degree assault, no jail time, and in lieu of a fine (which really wouldn't hurt an NFL player anyway) I would propose some amount of community service.  I'd be worried that my star witness didn't say what I thought she was going to say.  I'd be worried that the defense had a doctor say the injuries weren't consistent with strangulation.  Mostly, I'd be worried that a guy who I thought I had dead to rights a few months ago has a good chance to walk away from this unpunished.  The jury has been instructed to consider these misdemeanor charges as lesser included charges in case they are not comfortable convicting Cook of the felonies.  This is good for the prosecution, because they can still get a conviction even if the jury doesn't buy the entire story.

If I'm the defense team, I'd consider a deal that would avoid a felony and jail time.  Cook, as an NFL player, has quite a bit riding on not doing jail time.  The NFL will likely suspend him for a couple of games regardless of the outcome of this trial, but by avoiding jail time he can still practice with the team and continue to prepare for the 2012 season.  Obviously, if I were Cook's attorney, I'd look for the best deal I can get, but I would probably accept the above deal from the prosecution.  Yes, there is a chance that the jury is going to come back with a not guilty verdict, but juries are historically tougher on men accused of harming women than they are in other instances.

At this point, however, it certainly appears that this case will be decided by Cook's peers.  My gut tells me that he won't be convicted of the felony charges, but that at least one of the lesser included misdemeanors will stick.  Cook won't do any more jail time than the 4 days he did waiting for arraignment.  He'll do a little community service, and he'll receive a 4 game suspension from the NFL.  All in all, there are just too many things for the jury to question regarding what actually happened that night for them to confidently put a man in jail for the next few years.

Cases like this are always tough to figure out.  It's difficult to separate the emotions from the facts, and juries find themselves trying to separate their own preconceived notions from the facts of the case.  For Cook, being a big guy (6'2", 215 lbs) doesn't work in his favor, either.  Often, when the charge is that a significantly larger man did something physical to a smaller woman, the jury feels an obligation to protect the alleged victim (even though they shouldn't).  As a defense attorney, I would try to stress these factors to my client, making him aware of the fact that his actions aren't the only things on trial in a case like this.  Cook, while he has a strong case, will do well to avoid jail time.  I'm sure his lawyers know that.

Ultimately, this case will hinge on whether the jury believed the testimony Cook gave on Tuesday.  When a defendant takes the stand, a lot of the other testimony and evidence gets discounted by the jury.  It's the whole "straight from the horses mouthWhen an attorney recommends to his or her client, they have to make sure that their client will be convincing because so much will ride on that testimony.  If Cook did as well in the eyes of the jurors as he did in my eyes, he could be seeing a very favorable outcome when the jury ends their deliberation.

If you are in a situation where a criminal trial may be in your future, it's important to get legal representation immediately in order to set up the strongest possible defense.  Delaying hiring an attorney only increases the chance of you saying the wrong thing to police, missing out on opportunities to agree to a plea bargain, and decreases the amount of time your lawyer will have to evaluate your case and prepare for court.  If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime or fear that you will be, contact a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer today to get the jump on your defense.

As always, information contained in this blog is for entertainment purposes, only, and should not be construed as legal advice.  If you are in need of legal advice or representation, contact a Minnesota attorney to receive the specialized guidance you need in your time of trial.

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