Defense attorneys for expelled University of Wisconsin-Madison student Alec Cook are asking a Dane County Circuit judge to order 11 separate trials on a series of charges ranging from forcible sexual assault to disorderly conduct to avoid overwhelming prejudice against him.
Christopher Van Wagner and Jessa Nicholson Goetz argue the accusations of 11 women who claim they were victimized by Cook in separate incidents between September 2014 and October 2016 should be tried separately.
The 11 separate clusters of allegations are not related to each other in the way that state law requires in order for the cases to be tried together, Van Wagner and Nicholson Goetz argue in a June 30 motion filed with Judge Stephen Ehlke.
There currently are two court cases filed against Cook, 21.
A case filed in October brings 21 charges involving 10 women, ranging from sexual assault to false imprisonment, stalking and disorderly conduct. A second case filed in May brings charges of false imprisonment and disorderly conduct involving an 11th woman.
Prosecutors have told the court they plan to ask to join the two cases, defense attorneys said.
Not only should the two existing cases not be joined, but the 2016 case should be split up to avoid prejudicing a jury against Cook, defense attorneys argue.
Allowing the charges brought by 11 different accusers to be tried together would unfairly allow prosecutors to use “the number and nature of the allegations to paint the defendant as the bogeyman,” defense attorneys wrote in their motion.
Calling the resulting prejudice by jurors against Cook “astounding,” defense attorneys said they anticipate that prosecutors will repeat the character attack — raised at a bail hearing — that Cook “is a serial rapist and sexual predator.”
“The very notion of a campus rapist lurking among coeds is so extraordinarily frightening that this case has garnered national attention,” the defense argued in its motion.
The Cook case has attracted national attention during a time when campus sexual assault — and universities’ handling of such allegations — have become a contentious political issue.
Not only did newspapers in Wisconsin, but also some in Cook’s native Minnesota, carried stories about the charges against him. The story was picked up by news sites in Ohio and Iowa, as well as national news and higher education news websites, and the U.S. edition of the British newspaper The Guardian.
And UW-Madison officials took the unusual step of publicly announcing the suspension of Cook, as they did his expulsion in June.
The campus is under investigation by federal authorities – as are more than 200 other post-secondary educational institutions – for its handling of sexual assault complaints.
Those federal investigations grow out of Obama-era policies that are now the focus of renewed controversy and scrutiny under the Trump administration.
Cook’s attorneys argued in their court filing that, to be tried together, state law requires that alleged offenses be similar in character and based on the same act or series of acts that are part of a common scheme or plan.
That is not the case with the allegations made against Cook, his attorneys wrote.
The alleged offenses relating to each accuser are “separate, discrete acts,” they said. Evidence regarding the defendant’s interactions with one accuser does not overlap with evidence concerning his interactions with any other accuser, they said.
There are some similarities in the allegations. All involve female UW students in alleged incidents on or around the UW-Madison campus over a period of roughly two years.
But the incidents vary significantly in other ways, the lawyers argued. None of the accusers knew one another at the time of the alleged events. And they had different relationships with the defendant: One was a friend; three were in a dating relationship with him; one met Cook briefly and seemed interested in casual sex; two were classmates of the defendant; the rest were strangers.
The only shared plan among the incidents, defense attorneys argued, was Cook’s desire to find a girlfriend, which is not sufficiently specific to be fulfill the “common scheme or plan” requirement under law to try them together.
If the prosecution’s theory is that Cook is a “serial rapist,” that would introduce evidence of claimed character trait and require that the court find it is more likely than not that the alleged acts occurred.
But with the exception of one woman alleging stalking by an unknown man who contacted police prior to the first charges referred by police last fall, all the other accusers came forward in response to media coverage, Cook’s attorneys said.
“The ‘snowball’ of reporting demonstrates just how powerful the accusation of sexual assault is — our community ‘learned’ that the defendant was a ‘rapist’ by reading the widespread media coverage about (the initial charges), despite there having been no presentation of evidence to a jury or fact-finder to support this conclusion,” defense attorneys argued in their motion.
“Armed with this damning conclusion about the character of the defendant (‘rapist,’ ‘predator,’ ‘alpha male,’ etc.), otherwise unremarkable acts…take on a highly sinister tone,” they said.
A spokesman from the Wisconsin Attorney General’s office, which is prosecuting the 2016 case with the Dane County District Attorney’s Office, said the only comment will be through court filings.
Prosecutors are scheduled to file responses to defense motions with the court by Aug. 1.