A 21-count case that alleges sexual assault, harassment and stalking behavior toward 10 women by a former UW-Madison student will be broken up into six separate trials, a Dane County judge ruled in a written decision issued late Thursday.
With a decision for a separate trial for a later two-count case already decided by another judge, Thursday’s decision means that former student Alec Cook will face seven separate trials as his cases go forward.
Cook, 21, of Edina, Minnesota, was charged last year with 12 counts of varying degrees of sexual assault involving six women, along with other charges that include false imprisonment, disorderly conduct and stalking. In all, the charges involved 10 women.
In his decision, Dane County Circuit Judge Stephen Ehlke wrote that two counts of stalking involving two women will be tried together; counts of fourth-degree sexual assault and disorderly conduct involving four women would be tried together; and there will be four separate trials involving each of the women who are alleged victims of second- and third-degree sexual assault.
The issue was to be heard at a motion hearing on Friday, but it’s more likely that with Ehlke’s written decision, timing of the six trials to be held before Ehlke will be discussed instead.
Last month, Circuit Judge John Hyland ruled that a late-charged case, which alleges false imprisonment and disorderly conduct against Cook involving an 11th woman, would also be tried on its own. The date for that trial, which would be heard by Hyland, also will likely be set on Friday.
The decision is mostly a win for Cook’s lawyers, Chris Van Wagner and Jessa Nicholson Goetz, who had argued for 11 separate jury trials, one for each of Cook’s alleged victims. They had argued that trying all of the charges together in a single trial would cause unfair prejudice to Cook, as more serious allegations involving some of the women could influence a jury to find Cook guilty on the other charges.
Prosecutors argued that with all of the allegations heard together, the jury would have a better understanding of Cook’s intent and motive, which they said was a scheme to “place women in fear and have non-consensual interactions with them.”
Ehlke said that he did not find “striking similarities” in the counts filed against Cook, as prosecutors claimed.
“These descriptions of the defendant ‘trapping’ and ‘confining’ women vary substantially,” Ehlke wrote. “They do not evince a unique or signature manner in which the defendant allegedly restrained his victims. The theory of modus operandi is that certain crimes are committed in such a distinctive manner that they are necessarily attributable to a particular actor. Aggressive handling of women is not a tactic uniquely attributable to the defendant.”
Ehlke also said that prosecutors presented “no meaningful evidence of a theme” in the way that Cook communicated with the women after the alleged sexual assaults, and that they presented no evidence to show commonality in the way that Cook allegedly used physical force.
Ehlke wrote that by arguing that all of the charges should be tried together, prosecutors essentially are attempting to prove some of them through evidence showing that Cook has a propensity to act as he did. The value of that evidence, he wrote, is “substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.”
Even if the jury were cautioned, Ehlke said, “there is still a high probability that jurors would be improperly influenced by the sheer number of sexual assault charges facing the defendant,” making severance of the sexual assault charges necessary.
But Ehlke said that some of the charges could be tried together, if they involve the same alleged victim or shared some other common factors. The two stalking charges, for example, can be tried together because it’s alleged that Cook followed each of the women to learn their class or study schedules, causing both to turn to others to intervene and make him stop following them, Ehlke wrote.