DELAWARE – James Cooke receives death sentence on Lindsey Bonistall murder

September 18, 2012

 James Cooke                                                                                                          Lindsey Bonistall

WILMINGTON — Nearly six years ago, more than a year after she was killed, Lindsey M. Bonistall’s family watched the months-long trial and conviction of James Cooke. That was followed by years of appeals, then a second months-long trial and conviction.

On Monday, just like in 2007, a judge imposed a sentence of death by lethal injection.

Superior Court Judge Charles H. Toliver IV on Monday briefly prolonged the agony by announcing his sentences on the non-capital charges first, including burglary and rape, that added up to 127 years in prison.

Then, after a dramatic pause, Toliver told Cooke and the packed courtroom, “I must conclude, as did the jury, the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors … and the defendant, as a result, must be sentenced to death.”

“The evidence presented at trial leads to the inescapable conclusion that the murder of Lindsey Bonistall was committed in an unusually cruel and depraved fashion,” wrote Toliver in his 71-page opinion released afterward.

There were gasps, sobs and one quiet cheer of “Yes” from the side of the courtroom where Lindsey Bonistall’s family and friends were sitting.

The Bonistalls then passed around a box of tissues.

Cooke, 41, did not immediately react.

Lindsey’s mother, Kathleen Bonistall, emerged from the courtroom with her hands raised, announcing, “We did it,” to gathered family and friends. She then exchanged hugs with family and seven jurors who had voted to convict Cooke at the retrial.

Kathy Maguire, who acted as foreperson for the retrial jury, said she was satisfied with the outcome, noting it has been a long journey for the members of the jury – who continue to communicate via social media – and even longer and more difficult for the Bonistall family.

“I think we got it right,” said juror Bilal Hawkins, before correcting himself, “I know we got it right.”

Bonistall said they went in without any strong opinion about the sentence because it was a decision that was out of their control. She said for the family “there is no justice because Lindsey is not coming home with us.”

“This is an end to an arduous process,” she said in the lobby of the New Castle County Courthouse to a swarm of reporters. “We just want this process to end. It has been seven and a half years. I hope this is the end. I hope the Supreme Court will decide this is the end for this particular case.”

She said, from her point of view, the judicial system is broken in that it fails to take into account the rights of victims and their families, noting the difficulty of having to sit through a second trial and hear “lies” told about their daughter by James Cooke.

She said that the judicial process should be made “kinder and gentler” for victims, but said she did not know if that was possible.

According to testimony, early on May 1, 2005, Cooke broke into Lindsey Bonistall’s off-campus apartment near the University of Delaware, beat the 20-year-old student, bound her with an electrical cord, gagged her with a T-shirt and then sexually assaulted her before strangling her to death.

Cooke then set fire to the apartment and Bonistall’s body before fleeing.

The retrial jury voted 11-1 in favor of imposing the death sentence after convicting Cooke of rape, arson and murder.

Cooke’s previous conviction and death sentence in 2007 was tossed out by a divided Delaware Supreme Court in 2009. A majority of the justices ruled Cooke’s first set of attorneys violated Cooke’s rights by entering a plea of guilty-but-mentally-ill over Cooke’s objections.

Death will likely not come quickly for Cooke. Appeals in capital cases generally take a decade or more as they move through the state and federal courts.

More than 15 years after his 1995 conviction, ax killer Robert W. Jackson was taken to the lethal injection chamber at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in 2011. Killer Shannon Johnson was executed in 2012, four years after he was convicted of his crimes, but that quicker result only came after Johnson waived all his appeals in order to speed his own execution. Even then, legal fights over Johnson’s ability to waive those appeals took nearly two of those four years.

Cooke’s first appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court is automatic, according to one of his defense attorneys, Anthony Figliola, who said he will continue to represent Cooke despite the fact Cooke charged in court Monday that Figliola and co-counsel Peter Veith were guilty of “attorney malpractice” in their representation of him.

Cooke again also charged, after Toliver announced the sentence, that he was innocent and that the trial was just a set-up and corrupt. Toliver ended Cooke’s rant with a wave and guards took Cooke from the courtroom.

At the retrial, Cooke maintained on the stand that he did not kill Bonistall and that his DNA was found in her body because they had consensual sex. Prosecutors Steve Wood and Diane Coffey, however, pointed out to the jury that Bonistall was at work when Cooke alleged he was having consensual sex with her.

In his ruling, Toliver noted how Cooke’s version of events “simply lacks credibility” and that Cooke initially denied knowing Bonistall only to allege a sexual relationship after he found out about the DNA results. “Ms. Bonistall was truly an innocent victim of a violent crime,” Toliver wrote. “She had no involvement in and did not contribute to the crimes which ultimately led to her death.”

Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden was in the courtroom for the sentencing.

Biden said he was pleased that the sentence handed down “reflects the brutality” of what James Cooke inflicted on Lindsey Bonistall in 2005.

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