State prosecutors on Tuesday asked a Dane County judge to reject a proposal for 11 trials for former UW-Madison student Alec Cook — one for each woman he is accused of sexually assaulting or harassing.
The request, made in June by Cook’s lawyers, would be a waste of judicial resources and diminish a jury’s understanding of the intent and motive behind Cook’s alleged crimes, state Assistant Attorney General Christopher Liegel and Dane County Assistant District Attorney Bryce Pierson wrote.
“As separate cases the jury would be deprived of a complete and coherent story of Mr. Cook’s actions while the victims would be subjected to baseless and misleading attacks on their credibility,” Liegel and Pierson wrote.
“Alec Cook did not commit a single crime in a generic location and then repeat another unrelated crime in another generic location,” they wrote. “He perpetrated a campaign of crimes in a very particular location against a very specific population of people at that location.”
Cook, 21, of Edina, Minnesota, who was expelled from UW-Madison, is charged with 23 criminal counts involving 11 women on and around the UW-Madison campus. The charges include 12 counts of varying degrees of sexual assault involving six women, along with charges involving other women that include disorderly conduct and stalking.
Most of those charges were filed against Cook in October, but in June prosecutors added false imprisonment and disorderly conduct charges involving a woman who said that Cook trapped her in a dormitory laundry room in 2014 and would not let her leave.
After the state filed those last two charges, Cook’s lawyers said at a hearing that they intended to file a motion to break the case into separate, smaller cases.
In a motion filed June 30, they asked for 11 separate jury trials against Cook, instead of a single trial for all 23 criminal counts, arguing that trying Cook for incidents that allege sexual assault alongside charges for less serious crimes would be unfairly prejudicial to Cook.
The matter will be discussed at a motion hearing scheduled on Sept. 8.
“The joinder of these individual alleged victim offense clusters given the totality of the facts and circumstances alleged would irreparably erode the presumption of innocence afforded to the defendant at trial,” lawyers Chris Van Wagner and Jessa Nicholson Goetz wrote in their motion.
“A jury would start with the presumption that the defendant is a dangerous, predatory, terrifying person, and they would conclude that every action the defendant was alleged to have engaged in was an act undertaken by a dangerous predator, regardless of whether the evidence supports such a conclusion, or whether any individual allegation can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Each specific act, the defense wrote, must be evaluated based on Cook’s specific conduct in each event for which he is charged. With media coverage of Cook’s case, a “snowball effect” occurred, Van Wagner and Nicholson Goetz wrote, when people who never had believed themselves to be victims of a crime re-evaluated their interactions with Cook “and suddenly felt it necessary to report something to law enforcement, even though months or even years had passed.”
Prosecutors responded that Cook’s actions have to be viewed as a whole in order for jurors to understand them.
“This was not a series of isolated incidents,” Liegel and Pierson wrote. “Rather, they were part of his scheme to place women in fear and to have non-consensual interactions with them including physical violence and sex. The crimes charged against Mr. Cook represent the most serious fraction of the abuse he directed at the women he encountered during his time as a student.”
Trying the charges separately, prosecutors said, “would waste judicial resources, and it would prevent the jury from understanding the intent and motive behind Mr. Cook’s crimes.”The scheme, prosecutors said, included Cook attempting to become a great “pick-up artist.” They cite entries in Cook’s journals, including one in which he wrote, “Getting with the women I want has become a MUST. Or else I’ll end up killing myself.”
“This plan was to make women uncomfortable and fearful,” prosecutors wrote. “It was to terrify them such that they could not feel safe on campus. It was to inflict pain and abuse his victims. It was to sexually assault women. He relentlessly pursued this plan until he was arrested.”