Dane County Circuit Judge Stephen Ehlke sentenced expelled University of Wisconsin-Madison student Alec Cook to three years in prison for the sexual assaults of three female students.
A weeping Cook apologized before the sentence was handed down.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was wrong. You told the truth and everyone should believe you. This is my fault; you didn’t deserve this, and neither did your families. To them, too, I am so sorry," said Cook, red-faced from crying.
Previously free on bail, he was handcuffed and led from the courtroom after the sentencing.
Ehlke himself got choked up before sentencing as he reassured a victim in the case who felt guilty for initially trusting Cook.
“She has nothing to be ashamed of,” Ehlke said of the unnamed UW-Madison student who wrote of her feelings in a victim impact statement to the court.
Ehlke’s sentence capped a four-hour hearing at which three victim impact statements were heard, an expert in the treatment of sex offenders testified, and prosecutor Christopher Liegel and defense attorney Jessa Nicholson sparred with each other over tactics in the case.
Cook, 22, pled guilty in February to three counts of third-degree sexual assault, one count of strangulation and suffocation and one count of stalking.
Ehlke imposed three years in prison and five years supervision for the sexual assaults and five years supervision. He withheld sentencing on the other two charges and ordered three years of consecutive probation.
Cook pled guilty in a plea deal that included the dismissal of 16 other charges involving six additional women.
The convictions carried a maximum possible sentence of 39 years, 6 months in prison and $95,000 in fines. Prosecutors asked the court to impose a sentence of 19 years and 6 months.
The first of what eventually became 11 UW-Madison students to report Cook to police addressed the court Thursday through a victim statement read by a representative of the Rape Crisis Center of Madison.
An initial meeting with Cook in fall 2016 that felt like a romantic comedy led two weeks later to a night of violent sexual assault, manhandling and strangulation, she said.
“My body became a crime scene and my life changed forever,” the woman told Ehlke. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the woman became suicidal and was hospitalized at one point, she said.
Another victim addressed Ehlke directly, breaking down in tears, her long dark hair shading her face, as she described how her encounters with Cook had made her afraid walking down the street, in a coffee shop, or at a social gathering.
“I am anxiety-ridden with the prospect of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time with the wrong man,” she said. She also struggles with survivor’s guilt because she was not as injured as some other victims, she said.
The mother of another woman sexually assaulted in Cook’s apartment said her daughter decided to avoid the trauma of coming to court as she continues to heal. “Trauma will always be part of her life,” she said of her daughter.
She thinks about other young women, like her daughter, who are naïve and adventurous and pretty, she said.
“I think Alec is somebody who presents a real threat to them because of how charming he can be,” she said. She expressed compassion for Cook’s family and read a Wendell Berry poem, concluding that she wished peace for everyone in the courtroom.
Cook carries low to medium risk of reoffending, defense witness psychologist William A. Merrick told the court. Merrick evaluated Cook last summer and concluded he was a sexual sadist with narcissistic tendencies. Changing the narcissistic personality would take years of treatment, he said.
Since Cook would not receive treatment in prison until he approached his release and would be living in a climate that fosters anti-social behavior, imprisonment for the term requested by prosecutors would increase his likelihood of reoffending, Merrick said.
The best setting for treatment for Cook would be out-patient under supervision with a therapist to work on all his diagnoses, Merrick said. But under questioning from prosecutor Liegel, Merrick said that Cook was not interested in treatment for his narcissism or his admitted frequent drug use.
Some 10 to 20 percent of people have interest in sexual activity with elements of bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadomasochism and bondage without it impairing their life function, Merrick said.
“The disorder is only apparent because he’s gotten into trouble with it,” he said. But Cook’s narcissism, which could include believing he was entitled to sex from partners, is difficult to treat, he acknowledged.
Amenability to treatment could improve as Cook reaches his mid-20s and the frontal cortex in the brain completes its development, he said.
Prosecutor Liegel suggested that defense attorneys were trying to shame the victims by repeatedly bringing up that some of them had consensual sex with him. He said they attempted to portray the woman who first reported Cook to police as a willing participant by misrepresenting her utterances during the sexual assault, her later texts to a brother and a song lyric she quoted.
“Victim 1 told the truth,” Liegel said. And a hospital examination found injuries consistent with her account.
There are 10 other women who tell of what Cook did to them, and psychological reports about his fantasies of inflicting pain, Liegel said.
As for the assertion that Cook was misreading cues about what the women were consenting to, he received training about sexual assault at UW-Madison and “knew the boundaries and willingly violated them,” Liegel said.
To argue that Cook should be allowed to stay in the community where he could receive treatment — in which he has indicated he is not interested — and not re-offend, is “wishful thinking,” he said.
“Justice demands he be taken out of society,” Liegel told the judge. “Eleven victims is enough."
In her argument to the judge, defense attorney Jessa Nicholson sketched some of the sexual assault cases involving big names that are part of a reinvigorated prosecution and social condemnation of sexual assault. The #MeToo movement also has opened a national conversation on what constitutes a lack of consent, she said.
“This case is inextricably linked to that dialogue,” said Nicholson.
Noting that she was the only woman attorney in the courtroom, Nicholson criticized remarks there in and court filings about the victims being “irreparably damaged” by Cook, their lives divided into “before” and “after.”
“These statements by seemingly well-meaning men are obstructive to their healing,” she said. “We women are not defined by what happened to us; we are not broken. No one in this room is tethered to the word ‘victim.’’’
While prosecutors have painted Cook as a bogeyman, "he is not an aberration or an outlier,” Nicholson argued. “He is us.” The offenses he committed are common on college campuses all over the country, she said.
They need to be recognized as common, not the grist for retaliation, in order for the rape culture that supports such behavior to change, she said.
Resist the impulse for “blood lust,” Nicholson urged Ehlke, as she asked the court to withhold sentencing and put Cook on probation for eight years.
In a preamble to passing sentence, Ehlke stressed that he believed what the women reported.
“These women should not have had to bear what happened here,” he said.
But prison time is uncommon for third-degree sexual assault convictions where the accused has no prior criminal record and pleads guilty, Ehlke said.
In this case, probation alone would have depreciated the seriousness of the crimes, Ehlke said.
Cook also was ordered to have no contact with victims or their families and will be on a sex offender registry for 15 years after he completes his sentence.