"I lost my faith completely," he says.
Cook was convicted in 1978 and sentenced to death for the murder of Linda Jo Edwards, a secretary in Tyler, Texas. He was 21 years old at the time, a poor kid with a couple of arrests for knucklehead behavior, including the theft of a sheriff's cruiser. He met Edwards at his apartment complex and she invited him over for drinks.
Days later, Edwards was found raped and murdered. Investigators discovered Cook's fingerprint on a patio door and a detective later testified that the print was six to 12 hours old -- placing Cook at the scene. It is impossible to say when a fingerprint was left, but it, along with shaky witnesses, was enough to secure a conviction.
On death row, Cook suffered indescribable brutality. After one of the first beatings, he says he complained to prison officials, who told the other inmates, "Leave the girls alone. Leave the punks alone." Outed as a snitch, he became a target. Guards, he says, would not separate him from his attackers, so he resorted to cutting himself, forcing them to move him to another cell.
Ironically, prosecutors later used his self-mutilation against him when he appealed his conviction.
"They said I was so dangerous that if I couldn't hurt anybody else, I hurt myself," he says. "In prison, the dying was easy. But the living was hard."
An appeals court overturned his conviction and Cook got a second trial in 1992. It ended with a hung jury. He got a third trial in 1994 and he was found guilty. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals later overturned it because of unfair trial procedures. "Prosecutorial and police misconduct have tainted this matter from the outset," the court said.
Then in 1999, on the eve of a fourth trial, Cook accepted a plea deal, agreeing to plead no contest to the charges in exchange for his freedom. Having come within 11 days of execution at one point, Cook finally went free, though the prosecutors have continued to insist he's the killer -- even after tests showed another man's semen was left on Edwards' underwear.
Life on the outside hasn't been easy. Cook found his family in shambles. His brother had been murdered. Cancer killed his father. And his mother blamed him.
"She said I was the bullet that killed my brother. I was the cancer in my father's heart," Cook says. "She died last year never forgiving me."
But he met a woman, fell in love, got married. They have a 7-year-old son, Kerry Justice, or as Cook likes to say, "the only Justice I got in Texas." He wrote a book about his life, Chasing Justice, and got involved with two writers working on a play about the death penalty. The Exonerated includes Cook's story and the stories of five other wrongly convicted death row survivors. It opens Thursday in Pullman. It is the same play Illinois Gov. George Ryan saw in 2003 before he commuted the sentences of 164 inmates, from death to life without parole.
But for all the sweet moments of a free life, it is a simple one Cook cherishes most -- waking up in Plano, Texas, with his son sleeping at his side.
"Good morning, Daddy," K.J. will say.
"Good morning, K.J."
It keeps Cook going through the tough times, when money's short, when the neighbors eye him suspiciously, when he remembers the worst of prison.
"Waking up with my son," he says. "Those are the most precise moments. No matter what's going on in life, it wipes it all away."
The Exonerated will be performed at 8 pm on Feb. 7-9 and Feb. 14-16 in Jones Theatre, Daggy Hall, on Washington State University's Pullman campus. Kerry Max Cook will participate in discussions after the performances on Feb. 14-15. General admission tickets are $10 for adults, $7.50 for seniors and $5 for students.