Cooke v. State, Case No: 519, 2012

Decision Date24 July 2014
Docket NumberCase No: 526, 2012,Case No: 519, 2012
PartiesJAMES E. COOKE, Defendant-Appellant, v. STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff-Appellee.
CourtSupreme Court of Delaware

JAMES E. COOKE, Defendant-Appellant,
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff-Appellee.

Case No: 519, 2012
Case No: 526, 2012


Submitted: May 7, 2014
Decided: July 24, 2014

Court: Superior Court
of the State of Delaware, in
and for New Castle County
Cr. ID No. 0506005981

Before STRINE, Chief Justice, HOLLAND, BERGER, and RIDGELY, Justices, and JACOBS, Justice (Retired),* constituting the Court en Banc.

Upon appeal from the Superior Court. AFFIRMED.

Anthony A. Figliola, Jr., Esquire, Figliola & Facciolo, Wilmington, Delaware; Peter W. Veith, Esquire, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for Appellant.

Maria T. Knoll, Esquire, Andrew J. Vella, Esquire, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for Appellee.

STRINE, Chief Justice:

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James E. Cooke was convicted of, among other things, raping and murdering Lindsey Bonistall, a 20-year-old University of Delaware student. Cooke now seeks to have the judgment of convictions and the death sentence that were entered against him in the Superior Court vacated and to receive a new trial, or at least a new penalty hearing. Cooke has raised ten claims of error on appeal that defy brief summary. But what is common to all of Cooke's arguments is that none of them provides a basis for reversing the judgment of convictions and the death sentence that were entered against him. The Superior Court took painstaking efforts in the face of Cooke's continuous provocations and contemptuous behavior to respect his legitimate constitutional rights and to ensure that he received a fair trial and sentencing.

What is also common to many of Cooke's arguments is that they are grounded in the contention that he should be relieved of punishment because of his own inexcusable and incorrigible conduct. For example, Cooke's contumacious and disorderly behavior resulted in him forfeiting his right to continue to represent himself at trial. A criminal defendant may forfeit his constitutional rights by disruptive and unacceptable conduct. The Constitution protects citizens from having our government deprive them of their constitutional rights, but it does not protect a citizen where his own obstreperous conduct impairs his interests.

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On April 30, 2005, Lindsay Bonistall was a 20-year-old student at the University of Delaware. That night, Bonistall went to her friend Nicole Gengaro's dorm room and watched Saturday Night Live with Gengaro, Katie Johnson, and Isabel Whiteneck (née Rivero).2 When the show ended at 1:00 a.m. on May 1, 2005, Bonistall left, telling her friends that she might stop at a convenience store along the way home to pick up some food because she was hungry.3 After Bonistall came home, someone broke into the apartment that Bonistall shared with her roommate, Christine Bush.4 Bush was out of town that weekend. The intruder attacked Bonistall in her bedroom, tied her hands with an iron cord, and shoved a t-shirt into her mouth as a gag.5 The intruder beat Bonistall, striking her above her eye and on her chin, and raped her.6 The intruder then knelt on Bonistall's chest and strangled her to death,7 using another t-shirt that had been tied and knotted around her neck like a ligature.8

The intruder scrawled messages on the walls and countertops of the apartment.9 The intruder wrote "KKK" at multiple locations around the apartment. In the kitchen area, the intruder wrote, "WHITE Power." On a wall in the living room, the intruder

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wrote, "We Want Are [sic] weed back" and "Give us Are [sic] drugs back." The intruder also wrote, "More Bodies Are going to be turn in [sic] up Dead."10

To eliminate evidence of the crime, the intruder doused Bonistall's body in bleach.11 The intruder then dragged her body to the bathtub, put it in, covered it with flammable items, and set it on fire.12 The fire burned until it set off the hallway smoke alarm and other residents began to evacuate the apartment building. The fire department was called at 2:49 a.m. and the Newark volunteer fire department responded.13 After putting out the fire, the firefighters discovered Bonistall's burned body in the bathtub, still bound and gagged.14 The Fire Marshal determined that the fire had been intentionally set, and testified that the fire would have had to burn for at least an hour before it was put out to cause the damage it did.15 An autopsy determined that the cause of Bonistall's death was strangulation, and that Bonistall was dead before the fire was started.16 In other words, the fire would have been set at around 1:45 a.m. at the latest, meaning that Bonistall was killed less than an hour after she left her friends at around 1:00 a.m.

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Following the murder, an anonymous person who was attempting to disguise his voice made at least three calls to the Newark Police Department's 911 call center. In the first call on May 2, 2005, the caller said that Bonistall's murder was related to two break-ins that had occurred at nearby apartments during the week before Bonistall's murder.17 The phone call led the Newark Police to investigate connections between Bonistall's murder and the break-ins at the nearby apartments.

The first break-in occurred four days before Bonistall was murdered. Around 1:00 a.m. on April 26, 2005, Cheryl Harmon returned to her apartment. Harmon discovered that someone had written "I WHAT [sic] My drug Money," "DON'T Mess With My Men," and "we'll be back" on the walls of her apartment with red fingernail polish.18 Harmon noticed that she was missing several DVDs and two personalized rings.19 The point of entry was a living-room window with a pried-off lock.20

The second break-in occurred three days later, on April 29, 2005 — the evening before Bonistall was murdered. Amalia Cuadra woke up in the middle of the night because someone was shining a flashlight in her face. Cuadra called out to see if it was her roommate, and the intruder responded, "Shut the fuck up or I'll kill you" and "I know you have money. Give me your fucking money."21 Cuadra gave the intruder $45 in cash,

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but the intruder said, "Give me your fucking credit cards or I'll kill you."22 Cuadra gave him an American Express card and a VISA card. The intruder then demanded, "Take off your fucking clothes or I'll kill you."23 Cuadra screamed for her roommate and dialed 911 on her cell phone. The intruder fled, taking Cuadra's backpack, which had her name on it and contained an iPod and some diet pills in a tin container.24

The anonymous caller made two additional calls to the 911 call center on May 7, 2005. In those calls, the anonymous caller gave detailed information about the three crimes, including information that had not been released to the public.25 The calls convinced the Newark Police that the crimes were linked and had been committed by the same person. Evidence also emerged that focused the investigation on James E. Cooke.

Cooke lived with Rochelle Campbell, his girlfriend and the mother of three of his children. Campbell was pregnant with a fourth child by Cooke at the time.26 Harmon, Cuadra, and Bonistall's apartments were all within a quarter mile of Cooke's residence and could be seen from his back door.27 Campbell saw Cooke with the backpack from the Cuadra robbery in the early morning hours of April 30, 2005.28 Cooke told Campbell that he got the backpack from some college kids who had gotten into a car accident and

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had left it outside their house.29 Cooke showed Campbell the credit cards and told Campbell that he was going to try to use them. Cooke tried to use Cuadra's VISA card at a nearby ATM, but it did not work because Cuadra had already cancelled the card.30 Cooke then returned home without the backpack or the credit cards.31

But Cuadra's credit card company noticed that someone tried to use her stolen credit cards. The Newark Police retrieved the ATM surveillance video of the person who tried to use the card.32 Cuadra had described the intruder as a light-skinned black male with bumps or freckles on his face and puffy cheeks.33 That general description matched Cooke. Cuadra also said the intruder was wearing a gray hoodie, a hat, knitted gloves, and light blue pants.34 When Cuadra was shown the surveillance video from the ATM, she was fairly sure that it was the intruder,35 but when the Newark Police showed Cuadra a photo array including Cooke, Cuadra did not pick out Cooke's photo.36

The Newark Police used the ATM surveillance video from the Cuadra robbery to create a wanted poster for Bonistall's murderer, which was displayed around Newark, including at the Payless shoe store where Cooke worked part-time.37 Campbell, Cooke's coworkers from the Payless shoe store, and a woman who recognized Cooke from seeing

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him playing basketball in nearby Dickey Park, all identified Cooke as the man in the posters. They based their identification in part on the distinctive way the man in the poster stood on his toes and the type of gloves he was wearing. Both the distinctive foot position and the gloves were characteristics these witnesses associated with Cooke.38 The gloves contained small grips on the inside of the hand in a dotted pattern.39 The same dotted...

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