Vikings' Cook cleared of assault charges, ready to play

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 16, 2012 - 7:34 AM

NFL is unlikely to sanction Vikings cornerback, acquitted of domestic abuse

Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook left a Hennepin County courtroom Thursday cleared of domestic abuse charges, his sights now focused on a team prepared to welcome him back.

"Get ready," a smiling Cook said of his plans after a jury cleared him of two felony counts of domestic assault and third-degree assault. "I got a job to do. I missed 10 games. I gotta make up for those."

After a six-day trial, the jury took about five hours to find Cook, 25, not guilty of choking and beating Virginia college student Chantel Baker, 21, his girlfriend of 10 months, during an early morning argument Oct. 22 at his Eden Prairie townhouse. In a crucial moment for the defense and jurors, she testified that Cook did not try to choke her, despite initially telling police that night that he did.

Cook, who was placed on a paid leave of absence after he was charged, likely will not face disciplinary action by the NFL and is cleared to return to the team.

"We will meet with Chris in the near future and believe he deserves the opportunity to rejoin our organization," the Vikings said in a statement.

Prosecutors claimed Cook, jealous that Baker was texting an ex-boyfriend, choked her twice and slapped her so hard she flew into a wall, leaving her face bruised and bloodied and tearing a small hole in her eardrum. Defense attorneys said that Baker, who was drunk and aggressive, attacked Cook and that he slapped her in self-defense after she hit him in the head with a high-heeled shoe.

He was also found not guilty of misdemeanor domestic assault.

Baker said she lied to police about being choked the night of the fight to make sure Cook went to jail. Prosecutors contended that she was pressured to recant out of guilt that she jeopardized her one-time boyfriend's football career. Cook testified in his own defense that he was repeatedly trying to restrain his girlfriend and calm her down during the argument but never placed his hand on her throat.

Defense attorneys David Valentini and John Lucas said the fact that Baker's testimony aligned with Cook's helped trigger the acquittal.

"When the only people who know what happened get up there and testify, it's not too easy to tell the jury to make up a different story or read their minds." Lucas said.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said that, regardless of the verdict, he was proud of prosecutors Liz Cutter and Sarah Hilleren, who faced a challenge when Baker changed her story. It wasn't the first time they pressed on despite a victim's recantation, and it won't be the last, he said.

"We don't like these cases, but they need to be brought," he said. "If any good comes out of this case, it's people just ought not hit each other. Men, don't hit your women."

'Both at fault'

Some jurors said Thursday that Baker's recantation was part of a string of evidence that was not damning enough to convict Cook. They said they unanimously agreed that, as characterized by both sides, it was an argument that spiraled out of control.

"I feel that they were both at fault, it was a fight that escalated and now unfortunately they had to get dragged through the court system," juror Shari Colville said. "All of us collectively just hope that they can move on and put this behind them."

For juror Nick Dykstra, Baker's recantation presented just enough reasonable doubt to convince him that Cook was not guilty.

"I thought there was an 80 percent chance that he was guilty, but that 20 percent reasonable doubt was just a couple percentage points enough to make me vote not guilty," he said.

'I just want to play football'

Cook, who left the courtroom amid backslaps and embraces from his attorneys and supporters, was stoic even as the verdict was read. In the gallery, a young man clutching a football celebrated quietly. A few jurors smiled.

Cook's first order of business, he said, was a public apology to Baker, her family and his own for the stress of the past five months. Concern about public opinion was secondary.

"I just tried to ignore everything as far as what people were saying about me and the judgment that people were passing on me," he said. "I'm not that type of person. I'm not the person they portrayed me to be."

He's grateful Baker, whom he hasn't seen or spoken with since he was released from jail, vouched for him on the stand.

"We had a very significant relationship; I was in love with her at one point," he said. "I won't lie, I still have feelings for her."

Baker did not respond to a telephone or Facebook message for comment.

As much as Cook tried to ignore the public and legal scrutiny, he's relieved he won't have to deal with it anymore.

"I'm just happy. Now I can get back to my normal life," he said. "I don't have to look over my shoulder or worry about what someone else is thinking about me."

"I just want to play football."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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