Child sexual assault cases can pose the most significant difficulties for criminal defense attorneys, especially in politically conservative states whose legislatures have erected evidentiary and procedural roadblocks to an effective defense. And it is in these same states, such as Texas, where defense attorneys must voir dire through jury pools in which most prospective jurors—some admittedly so—enter a child sexual assault case with a “presumption of guilt” against the accused.
Take the case of Kennie Lewis Cook, Jr., an East Texas school teacher who was convicted in December 2019 for three counts of sexual assault of a seven-year-old boy and sentenced to 80 years in prison. He will not be eligible for parole for at least 40 years.
Cook was a person of good reputation in the educational, religious, and social arenas of the small town of Atlanta, Texas. Nothing in his personal or social history would indicate he would be involved in child sexual abuse or other criminal activity.
The child victim became acquainted with Cook, who served as music director and organist at the church in addition to other capacities. He was also a close friend of the Coleman family. Gladys Coleman, the child victim’s great-grandmother, often took the child to church in 2018.
In the summer of 2018, the child victim’s mother, Felicia, caught her son sucking the penis of his brother. Pressed by his mother, the victim told her Cook had done the same thing to him at Gladys’ home.
Armed with this “outcry” information, Felicia took her son to the church, where she told Gladys’ other grandson, a cousin to the victim, about the alleged sexual abuse by Cook. The victim then denied any sexual abuse had occurred.
This recantation prompted Gladys to record an interview with the victim, who said Cook only spanked him and that his mother had made up the sexual abuse allegations against Cook. Instead, the victim told Gladys that it was actually his stepdad who had sexually abused him.
The allegations spawned a criminal investigation. The investigation included the victim being interviewed by the local Children’s Advocacy Center, during which the victim told interviewer Jessica Kelley about three incidents of sexual abuse by Cook, including Cook sticking a finger in his rectum.
At Cook’s 2019 trial, the jury heard testimony not only from Kelley but from Keleigh Dodson as well. Dodson was the victim’s personal Advocacy Center counselor. She testified that the victim showed signs of trauma but said that since she was not aware of the specific events surrounding the abuse alleged by the victim, she could not pinpoint the source of the trauma.
The jury also heard testimony from Atlanta Police Department Sergeant Jimma Hicks who said he arrested Cook after the interview with Jessica Kelley because he believed the victim’s allegations were credible enough to establish probable cause for arrest.
Gladys Coleman told the jury she did not believe the sexual abuse allegations because of Cook’s character and because the abuse supposedly occurred at her home while she was present, and that there had been no opportunity outside her presence for the abuse to have taken place.
Members of Felicia’s family testified that they did not believe the abuse allegations either given Cook’s upstanding reputation and honesty. They uniformly testified that Felicia was a compulsive liar and that she coached the victim to lie against Cook because they believed her husband had committed the abuse.
On the other hand, two family members, including the victim’s grandmother and an aunt, testified that they believed the victim.
The child victim testified in detail about the abuse.
Cook testified in his own defense. He told the jury he was innocent and that the sexual abuse allegations against him had been manufactured.
Without any medical or forensic evidence, that was essentially the State’s case against Kennie Lewis Cook: a mother with a reputation as a pathological liar and schemer leveling the “outcry” charge; two child sexual abuse advocates who offered testimonial observations that bolstered and gave some credence to the outcry; a police sergeant with no expertise in witness credibility testifying that he believed the victim was credible; and two family members who said they believed the abuse allegations.
The defense case was that Cook had a sterling reputation in the community; the great-grandmother’s video recording of the victim’s recantation against Cook; the great-grandmother and other family members saying the mother repeating the outcry was a liar, schemer, and manipulator; the victim’s pretrial recantation and his statements, supported by family members, that the mother’s felon husband had committed the sexual abuse; and the victim’s sexual abuse of his brother, as well as his history of inappropriately sexually touching girls, that cast doubt on his credibility.
On January 11, 2023, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals essentially upheld Cook’s convictions and sentences. However, the court did remand his case back for additional review by a lower court of a single legal issue not likely to result in a reversal of his convictions.
In a 2-1 decision, the Sixth Court of Appeals, on December 20, 2021, reversed Cook’s convictions and sentences. While the appeals court found sufficient evidence to support the jury’s guilty verdict in Cook’s case, the court believed a new trial was warranted because the trial court allowed Sergeant Hicks to testify about the victim’s credibility. Testimony that a particular witness is truthful is inadmissible. The Court reasoned that Cook was harmed because “a direct opinion as to the truthfulness of a witness ‘crosses the line’ under Rule 702 because it does more than ‘assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue; it decides an issue for the jury. This rule applies equally to expert and lay witness testimony.”
The Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed with 6th Court of Appeals’ assessment, reinstating Cook’s convictions with its reverse and remand order.
This was a problematic child sexual abuse case from the beginning. The outcry came after the complaining witness was caught sexually abusing his own brother by his mother. The mother was married to a felon, who the 7-year-old victim also said was sexually abusing him. Finally, the child made a recantation on video regarding Cook.
When caught sexually abusing his brother, the alleged victim says he learned about that kind of sexual behavior from a respected educator in the community. The mother—who family members describe as a liar, schemer, and manipulator—reports the abuse to the police. That report triggers a criminal investigation not to seek the truth but to build a case against the accused.
At the time of the investigation, some family members of the mother believe she made the outcry against Cook to protect her husband from allegations that he, not Cook, had sexually abused the 7-year-old.
Why else would the boy recant the allegations against Cook and point the accusing finger at his stepdad during the video recording with Gladys?
We don’t know if the 7-year-old boy lied. But there is undoubtedly reasonable doubt as to the state’s case.
While there is no reliable methodology to determine when a child is lying about sexual abuse, “experts” in the field say the percentage is “small”—no more than 4 to 8 percent. The average incidence of fabrication across all age cohorts of children, toddlers to adolescents, is 5 percent, meaning one out of every 20 sexual abuse allegations is believed to be fabricated. That is a huge number for a defendant facing false allegations. There is no validated test or scientifically verifiable method to determine if a child is telling the truth about allegations of sexual abuse.
The 2021 Annual Report by the National Registry of Exonerations found that nine people were exonerated that year in sex crime cases, two of which involved children. Similarly, the Center for Prosecutor Integrity has reported that by the end of 2018, more than 250 persons had been exonerated in child sex cases.
Kennie Lewis Cook stands convicted of what most in the criminal justice system consider the “worse possible crime.” He could possibly die in the Texas prison system based exclusively on testimony by people whose credibility is highly questionable, to say the least—particularly the mother who leveled the initial accusation.
We suspect the verdict in the Cook came from a jury, like so many others, that entered the case with horror and a presumption of guilt against him. That is the inherent danger of trial-by-jury in cases involving child sexual abuse, which should only be contemplated with a criminal defense lawyer experienced in the most challenging cases.