Alec Cook will be tried in Jefferson County, court officials said Monday. Cook is the expelled University of Wisconsin-Madison student whose alleged serial sexual assaults attracted such intense publicity that a pair of Dane County Circuit judges ruled he might not get a fair trial in Madison.
In a rarely granted change of venue, attorneys for Cook and prosecutors will begin selecting a jury on Feb. 26 at the Jefferson County Courthouse in the city of Jefferson, about 35 miles east of Madison, District V court administrator Theresa Owens said Monday.
The trial involves charges of 2nd-degree sexual assault, false imprisonment and strangulation and suffocation and will be heard by Dane County Circuit Judge Stephen Ehlke. Six more trials, to cover a total of 23 charges brought by 11 accusers, are planned.
The Feb. 26 trial covers accusations by a UW-Madison student who told police that Cook became violent during what began as consensual sex on Oct. 12, 2016. This was the first case charged against Cook and it attracted media coverage that prompted other alleged victims to contact police.
The media coverage grew so intense that Ehlke and Circuit Judge John Hyland agreed in a Dec. 1 ruling with Cook’s lawyers that there was a “reasonable likelihood of community prejudice” strong enough to preclude the possibility of a fair trial in Dane County.
Hyland will preside in one of the cases brought against Cook.
As an example of how pernicious the pre-trial publicity had been, Cook attorney Chris Van Wagner told the judges that a former client had texted him to say she saw his “serial rapist” case on the news. “Do you not believe in the presumption of innocence,” Van Wagner told judges he texted back.
“One or two accusations maybe, but 20?” came the response.
Not only had publicity convinced prospective jurors of Cook’s guilt, but incendiary comments by the prosecution — like a reference to “dozens” of accusers coming forward — had exaggerated public understanding of the number of allegations against him, Van Wagner argued.
Assistant Attorney General Christopher Liegel said that the media coverage of the case was so widespread that no matter where in the state the cases were tried, prospective jurors would likely have heard of Cook. Careful questioning of jurors in Dane County would be a better solution, Liegel argued.
The judges said in their decision that coverage of the case — by news outlets and on social media — did not stop after an initial flurry following Cook’s arrest and early court appearances and probably would continue.
On Monday, hours before the trial venue was made public, Vice Media, a national news website, used details of the Cook case — that “would shake the UW-Madison campus for years to come” — to lead into a story examining loosening of federal oversight of college campuses’ handling of sexual assault cases under Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
The judges said the seriousness of the charges against Cook weighed in favor of holding the trials outside of Dane County.
Cook is charged with:
- Six counts of 2nd-degree sexual assault/use of force.
- One count of 2nd-degree sexual assault/sex organ injury.
- Three counts of 3rd-degree sexual assault.
- Two counts of 4th-degree sexual assault.
- Two counts of strangulation and suffocation.
- Three counts of false imprisonment.
- Two counts of stalking.
- Four counts of disorderly conduct.