Convicted killer of UD student goes on trial for his life

James Cooke was not in the courtroom for the start of the penalty phase in his case, which will determine whether he is executed for the 2005 rape and murder of a University of Delaware student. 

“I do not wish to perform this mitigation,” Cooke told the court before the jury was brought in to hear testimony.  “This is not going to be a fair hearing… just give me death.” 

Cooke recited a long list of perceived injustices and continued to maintain his innocence.  “Kill me,” he was heard saying as he was ushered out of Judge Charles Toliver’s courtroom.

Opening the state’s case for the death penalty, prosecutor Steven Wood told jurors they would hear testimony about the impact Lindsey Bonistall’s murder had on her family and friends, as well as Cooke’s criminal history, which began in his preteen years and continued even after Bonistall’s death. 

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“The only appropriate sentence is a sentence of death,” Wood said. 

Initial witnesses included a woman who was injured in the neck from a rock thrown by Cooke in 1983 in Salem, New Jersey.   Cooke would have been about 12 years old at the time.  Several southern New Jersey law enforcement officers also detailed Cooke’s drug-related arrests in the early 1990s, and the time he managed to escape when he was left unwatched while handcuffed to a bench at Salem police headquarters.

The prosecution is also expected to present witnesses who will talk about Cooke’s involvement in a wave of burglaries and robberies in Atlantic City in early June, 2005 – weeks after Bonistall was killed and days before Cooke was arrested in Wilmington.

Mitigating factors to be presented are expected to include details about abuse, neglect and abandonment during Cooke’s childhood.

The jury must consider all aggravating and mitigating factors before voting on a recommendation of death by lethal injection, or life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Judge Toliver will take the jury’s vote into consideration before he imposes the sentence.

Cooke received a second trial when the Delaware Supreme Court overturned his original conviction and death sentence.  His previous legal team pursued a defense of “guilty but mentally ill,” while Cooke maintained he was not guilty.

After several outbursts early in his retrial, Judge Toliver said Cooke could no longer represent himself and his defense was led by two attorneys, Peter Veith and Anthony Figliola.  The jury verdict came April 13th in the second day of deliberations.

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