With former UW-Madison student Alec Cook’s wide-ranging sexual assault and harassment case broken up into seven trials before two judges, the first three of those trials were scheduled Friday. But his lawyers said that juries from somewhere other than Dane County should hear them.
Publicity surrounding Cook’s case, which began when the first charges against him were filed in October, will make it impossible to find jurors here who haven’t formed some sort of opinion about him, said Cook’s lawyers, Chris Van Wagner and Jessa Nicholson Goetz.
Cook, 21, of Edina, Minnesota, was charged last year with 12 counts of varying degrees of sexual assault involving six women, along with several other charges that include stalking, disorderly conduct and false imprisonment. Prosecutors say that 11 women have been the victims of sexual assault or harassment by Cook.
Van Wagner and Nicholson Goetz said Friday that UW-Madison, along with local police and the Dane County District Attorney’s Office, fed a frenzy in the press and on social media that sensationalized and exaggerated what they claimed was Cook’s dangerousness, and that will make it impossible to find an impartial jury for his trials in Dane County.
Van Wagner said that 40,000 students and 10,000 staff on the UW-Madison campus alone were sent alerts “that there was a dangerous man on the loose on campus.”
“The way that this case was treated in this community at the time of the initial charging decision, the coverage was so widespread and so inaccurate that we have concerns that people wouldn’t be able to set aside what they have read and separate the fact from the fiction,” Nicholson Goetz said.
A UW-Madison spokeswoman disputed Van Wagner and Nicholson Goetz’s characterization of UW’s response to the Cook situation, saying it was law enforcement, not UW, that disclosed Cook’s name or student status.
“The university responded with a simple statement to help our community understand the situation,” Meredith McGlone said.
On Thursday, Dane County Circuit Judge Stephen Ehlke broke the larger of Cook’s two cases into six separate trials, finding that trying all of the charges together would be unfair to Cook. Last month, Circuit Judge John Hyland ruled that a separate false imprisonment and disorderly conduct case against Cook would remain separate from the larger case.
On Friday, Hyland set a trial in the false imprisonment case for jury selection on Dec. 11. Jury selection for the first case before Ehlke will be Feb. 26, starting a weeklong trial involving one of the alleged victims. Charges against Cook in that trial are three counts of second-degree sexual assault, one count of third-degree sexual assault, strangulation and false imprisonment, all involving the same woman.
Cook’s third trial was set for jury selection on April 9, and will decide stalking charges involving two women. The other four trials will be set at a later date, and if they take place will likely occur long into 2018.
Leading up to the trials, Van Wagner and Nicholson Goetz said they also intend to file motions seeking suppression of evidence gathered during searches of Cook and his apartment. Nicholson Goetz said that Cook consented to a limited search of his apartment in October, but alleges that police exceeded the limits of that consent search and used evidence gathered during that illegal search to get a broader search warrant for Cook’s apartment.
District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said he would have to look more closely at that issue before commenting on it. He also said he hasn’t thought about whether a Dane County jury should hear Cook’s trials, but he said that very few cases ever generate enough publicity between the time they are charged and the time they go to trial to warrant picking jurors from outside Dane County.
But Van Wagner and Nicholson Goetz said that publicity about Cook’s case has been pervasive and inflammatory, and included statements by a prosecutor at a bail hearing early in the case about so-called stalking notebooks that included a column, which was not defined, that said “kill.” Little of that has been among the evidence eventually turned over as the case went forward, Cook’s lawyers said, but the impression remains in the minds of potential jurors.
The prosecutors in the case, state Assistant Attorney General Christopher Liegel and Assistant District Attorney Bryce Pierson, said they may file motions to present “other acts” evidence against Cook, intended to demonstrate the likelihood that Cook committed the crimes with which he is charged.