By Marice Richter
DALLAS (Reuters) - Murder charges were dismissed on Monday against a former Texas prisoner released from jail in 1999 after serving about 20 years on death row for the rape and murder of a 21-year-old woman.
A judge in state court in East Texas approved an agreement between prosecutors and attorneys for Kerry Cook, 60, to overturn the capital murder conviction against him in the death of Linda Jo Edwards in 1977, court officials said. Cook has insisted for nearly 40 years he is innocent.
The agreement came after new evidence that proves his innocence and implicates another man, according to a statement from the Innocence Project of Texas, which represented Cook in the case.
Cook is expected to return to court on June 27, when his lawyers are expected to argue that he deserves to be exonerated, according to the statement. If that happens, he could be eligible for about $2 million or more in compensation for the two decades that he was incarcerated.
The case captured national attention and raised fresh questions about death penalty prosecutions in the state that has executed the most prisoners since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
It also has had unusual turns including a 1999 "no contest" plea to murder that allowed Cook to be released from prison and required no admission of guilt.
Local prosecutors declined to comment and Cook's attorney could not be reached for comment.
He was initially convicted in 1978 but his case was appealed and retried. In 1996, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction and death sentence due to prosecutorial misconduct.
Cook was a 21-year-old bartender with no history of violence who lived in the same east Texas apartment complex as Edwards.
Later, when DNA testing became available, Cook underwent several tests with the results pointing to his claims of innocence, according to the Innocence Project.
In 1999, the Texas Department of Public Safety notified prosecutors it had found DNA in seminal fluid in the underwear of the victim belonging to Edwards, according to papers filed by lawyers for Cook.
Six other DNA tests of evidence at the scene have also cleared Cook, they said.
(Reporting by Marice Richter; Writing Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Diane Craft)