Jury of peers, not Vikings teammates, will shape Cook's fate

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2012 - 6:59 AM

Football pushed far into background as his felony trial begins.

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Chris Cook

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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By afternoon's end, Chris Cook stood, tugged at his suit jacket and cracked his neck - first left, then back to the right. He pushed his chair forward and stared at the courtroom ceiling for a few seconds.

This was the end of a tiring day and the beginning of a long and anxious week.

To Vikings fans, one question has hovered for four months now: When, if ever, will Cook be back on the field wearing his purple No. 31 jersey?

Yet on Monday, that question carried sobering context, Cook is not just a 25-year-old cornerback hopeful for a shot at NFL redemption, but also a defendant beginning his felony trial.

A little more than 19 weeks after an argument between Cook and his girlfriend turned violent in Eden Prairie, jury selection has begun for a case that will, in large part, determine Cook's future.

District Court File 27CR1133287: The State of Minnesota vs. Christopher O'Shea Cook.

The defendant faces two charges: domestic assault by strangulation and assault in the third degree.

On Monday, not long before lunch, Cook stood in courtroom 1653 in the Hennepin County Government Center and attentively watched 40 of his so-called peers parade in.

These were the prospective jurors, 12 of which will be selected -- likely by the end of Tuesday -- to consider evidence presented by the prosecution as well as Cook's defense attorneys.

Among the jurors who filed in: a law professor, a semitrailer truck driver, a bank vice president and a dialysis nurse.

Cook looked each of them over and paid close attention throughout the proceedings, his fate now being served to strangers, tied to an unnerving criminal case that should be ready for jury deliberation by early next week.

Professional football will have nothing to do with any of it.

Two sides to every story

On Monday afternoon, Juror No. 4 was excused, herself a former domestic abuse victim.

Juror No. 22 also exited after admitting on a written questionnaire that, based on what he had heard and read about the alleged crime, he couldn't be fair and impartial enough to provide Cook a presumption of innocence.

More jurors are likely to be excused Tuesday before opening statements begin.

It remains to be seen, for example, what attorneys will do with the college student from Maple Grove who admitted to being a die-hard Vikings fan and hinted that, in his mind, the prosecution may start out a little behind, noting Cook's return to action would be positive for his favorite team.

"I wish he'd get us to a Super Bowl," the juror quipped.

Which quickly served as a reminder of the two very different worlds Cook is a part of. This week, the bright lights, extravagant NFL stage Cook wants to return to will take a back seat to the high stakes civics lesson he is about to receive firsthand.

The more time that has passed since Cook's incarceration in October, the easier it has been for the details of his alleged crime to fade. Now, two prosecuting attorneys will attempt to reveal Cook's alleged vicious behavior beyond a reasonable doubt. The cornerback's attorneys will assert the violence came in self-defense.

Professional football will have nothing to do with any of it.

Changing stories

During pretrial discussions Monday, the state won a motion to admit prior statements, a victory for a prosecution that seems to be expecting the testimony from Cook's alleged victim to be different now than what she told police, detectives and doctors in the fall.

That ruling came amid revelations that the alleged victim had made recent statements that she still cares for and loves Cook.

The other major development came with the disclosure of new details from a call Cook made to his girlfriend from jail the afternoon following their altercation. In that conversation, the cornerback is said to have blamed his girlfriend for making him miss the Vikings' Week 7 game with Green Bay.

Cook's girlfriend reportedly then apologized for reporting the strangulation to police. That's what put Cook behind bars.

So now Cook will spend the rest of this week at the same defense table, in the same courtroom downtown, as the early hours of Oct. 22 are revisited by lawyers and witnesses and assessed by the jury.

A talented young cornerback will play a distressing waiting game, the arc of his life dependent on a verdict issued by 12 strangers.

Professional football will have nothing to do with any of it.

Dan Wiederer • • dan.wiederer@startribune.com

Kevin Williams wasn't surprised by revelations over the weekend that the New Orleans Saints put a bounty on Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game. He saw it with his own eyes. "You hear things, but you don't know how much truth is behind it," the Vikings All-Pro defensive tackle said. "Especially after that game, you heard their game plan was to take Favre out of the game. You could pretty much tell that was what was going on." The Saints didn't knock Favre out of the game, but their late hits and over-the-line tactics took a toll. Favre looked like a human bruise in the locker room afterward. He was a 40-year-old quarterback who moved as if he were 80. "He was a wreck," Williams said. Two seasons later and with the Saints intentions now a matter of public record, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is poised to deliver his own form of harsh punishment to former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and any other Saints employee who had knowledge of or participated in the bounty program that rewarded players for vicious hits and knocking opponents out of games. What the league uncovered in its investigation of the Saints bounty program didn't necessarily engender a sense of shock. More like disgust. The NFL's popularity continues to soar because the game is emotional and physical and, yes, violent. We're fascinated that players are willing to sacrifice their bodies and long-term health in ways that normal, sane people never would dare consider. It's a brutal world, but it shouldn't be without boundaries. Injury is an inherent part of the game. Intent to injure is a cardinal sin. "It's a gladiator game," said former NFL player Bob Stein. "It's not something that needs additional gas on the fire for injuries. If in fact it turns out that [the Saints] point is, 'We'll pay you for injuring other players,' to me that's way, way, way outside the lines." The timing of this story couldn't be any worse for Gregg Williams, the Saints or the NFL. The league is operating in the age of concussion awareness and increased player safety. The NFL has become diligent and vigilant about promoting safety and penalizing those who don't adhere to rules. Even borderline hits are now subject to steep fines. An increasing number of former players have stepped forward to share testimonials -- and join lawsuits against the NFL -- outlining how repeated brain trauma suffered during their career has affected their daily lives. With that sad reality as the backdrop, Goodell is handed a case in which a team fosters an environment that rewards players financially for imposing harm and injury on other players. That's why many league observers predict unprecedented punishment involving fines and suspensions that could include general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton, in addition to Williams, now the defensive coordinator in St. Louis. Favre told Sports Illustrated's Peter King that he isn't angry, but he's glad the truth is finally revealed. "I'm not going to make a big deal about it," he said. "In all honesty, there's a bounty of some kind on you on every play. Now, in that game there were some plays that, I don't want to say were odd, but I'd throw the ball and whack, on every play. Hand it off, whack. Over and over. Some were so blatant. I hand the ball to Percy Harvin early and got drilled right in the chin. They flagged that one at least." It is naive to suggest this kind of pay-for-pain arrangement is new or limited to one coach or locker room. Maybe it's not organized and promoted by a defensive coordinator, but it's not an isolated incident either. Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka remembers one team had a "hit-list" that included a few of his star players in the mid-1980s. "I don't know if they were paid for it or whether they were just trying to get guys out of the game," he said. "Not going to say who it was because it doesn't matter, but it did happen to us." It might happen more than we even know because it's impossible to distinguish between heat-of-the-moment emotion and premeditation. Neither is acceptable, but one expects a certain mutual respect even in that cutthroat and ultra-competitive line of work. Fans love those big hits that cause a collective gasp in the crowd and make the TV highlights. It's fine if those bang-bang plays occur in the natural flow of the game. It's understandable and understood that sometimes players get hurt as a result. It crosses the line into malice, however, when a player predetermines that he's going to submarine a quarterback in the knees in order to injure him and collect some cash. That cannot be tolerated. "It's as wrong as it gets," Stein said. "From every perspective." Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com
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