Suspect in rape and murder of UD student seeks to represent himself at retrial

James Cooke will represent himself when he is tried for the second time for the 2005 rape and murder of University of Delaware student Lindsey Bonistall.

Cooke appeared in Superior Court in Wilmington Wednesday accompanied by his latest team of legal representatives, and he answered “yes, I understand” to most of the questions in a sometimes-testy exchange with Superior Court Judge Charles Toliver. 

Defense attorney Anthony Figliola opened the proceeding by stating that he had met with Cooke that morning and that it was still their contention that it was not in his best interest to represent himself, although it is his constitutional right to do so.  During questions from Judge Toliver, the 40-year-old Cooke said he had never represented himself in a courtroom previously and that he wished to discharge his attorneys.  During one exchange, Cooke told Toliver, “Please stop talking to me like I’m illiterate.”  Judge Toliver responded, “Do not tell me how to conduct a proceeding.” 

Cooke was reminded that it is a capital case in which the state would seek the death penalty if there is a conviction, and that jury selection thus would be more complicated.  Judge Toliver added that acting as his own counsel would not give Cooke a license to be disruptive and would require a “degree of civility and courtesy.” 

Cooke’s first trial included several outbursts from the defendant.  He was convicted in 2007, and Judge Jerome Herlihy followed the jury’s recommendation and sentenced Cooke to death.  Two years later the Delaware Supreme Court overturned the conviction, ruling that while Cooke’s lawyers at the time argued for a verdict of “guilty but mentally ill,” Cooke himself maintained his innocence.  The U.S. Supreme Court in early 2010 decided not to hear the state’s case against holding a new trial. 

Cooke also raised the issue of having adequate time to prepare for his February retrial, noting that he would need access to at least 20 boxes of documents as well as the prison library.  Judge Toliver said he would not be inclined to grant an extension, saying Cooke not being prepared would be one of “the perils of self-representation.”

Cooke would prepare his case and proceed with his defense, with Figliola and attorney Peter Veith acting as “standby counsel.”

Lindsey Bonistall was a 20-year-old sophomore at UD from White Plains, New York.  She was killed in her off-campus apartment after being sexually assaulted.  A fire was also set at her apartment, which was also defaced with graffiti.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.