A man being tried for the second time for the 2005 rape and murder of a University of Delaware student is representing himself – and has already drawn admonitions from the court.
James Cooke’s retrial is underway following two weeks of jury selection at Superior Court in Wilmington. Cooke was convicted five years ago for raping and killing Lindsey Bonistall at her off-campus apartment in Newark. The Delaware Supreme Court overturned that verdict, ruling that Cooke’s lawyers at the time argued for a verdict of “guilty but mentally ill” against Cooke’s claims that he was innocent.
Even before the jury was sworn in Wednesday morning, Cooke was raising protests about limitations he said were being placed on his ability to defend himself. Judge Charles Toliver immediately rejected Cooke’s request that he recuse himself as the judge in the case.
Cooke began his opening statement by telling the jury “I don’t have a story. I have the truth.”
“For seven years I have been crying innocence,” Cooke added. “This is a racial trial.”
Cooke delved into previous proceedings and contested evidence which the jurors are not supposed to know about. Prosecutor Steven Wood stood to raise an objection, prompting Judge Toliver to clear the courtroom of jurors. Cooke and the judge then engaged in a testy discussion. Judge Toliver said Cooke would forfeit his right to represent himself if he did not abide by the court’s directives.
Later, in the presence of the jury, Cooke said that he was being prohibited from telling the truth. “I can’t speak on things,” he said. “If I say anything wrong, my right’s taken. It’s sad. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
Beforehand, Wood laid out the witnesses the state would present during the trial who he said would support the state’s allegation that Cooke broke into Bonistall’s apartment, beat her, raped her and strangled her before placing her body in a bathtub, burying her with household items and setting a fire. Words were then scrawled on the walls of her apartment in an attempt to throw off investigators, according to Wood.
Cooke, clad in a white prison uniform, cross-examined the state’s first two witnesses – a former maintenance supervisor at the apartment complex where Bonistall lived, and a former UD student who was a volunteer firefighter the night that Bonistall was killed.
Judge Toliver again sent the jurors out of the courtroom when Cooke made reference to his previous trial. “I can’t guarantee you much during this trial, but I guarantee you’ll get a lot of exercise,” the judge quipped.
Cooke’s rambling questions drew repeated objections from the state, with the judge asking frequent questions in order to draw out clear answers. At one point, Cooke asked a witness “do you have any black friends?”
When Cooke was again warned that his questioning had crossed the line, he again said he was being treated unfairly. “I’m finding myself in a hard, hard place,” Cooke said. “I’m being framed.”
After the jury was dismissed for the day, Judge Toliver reiterated that Cooke was in danger of losing his right to represent himself.
Members of Lindsey Bonistall’s family are attending Cooke’s second trial. They are seeing some familiar faces, including two former jurors.
Richard Pierce of Pike Creek, who served on the first jury, said he came back for the opening of Cooke’s retrial for some “closure.”
Stewart Dotts of Newark was also on that first panel. He said he frequently thinks about that first trial, and about the Bonistall family. Also, he said he was there to “pass the torch to another jury.”