Former UW-Madison student Alec Cook, accused of sexual assaults and harassment of women in the campus area, will have at least two trials, after a judge on Friday declined to merge a case filed in May with a larger case that has been pending against Cook since October.
Dane County Circuit Judge John Hyland, who was assigned the more recently filed case that charges Cook with false imprisonment and disorderly conduct, wrote in a decision Friday that the cases are too dissimilar to be tried together.
Cook, 21, of Edina, Minnesota, is charged in a 21-count criminal complaint 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, those charges involve 10 women. Most of those charges were filed in October.
That case is being heard by Circuit Judge Stephen Ehlke.
The second complaint, involving allegations about Cook that took place earlier, in September 2014, was filed in May.
A decision on whether to break up the larger, 21-count case pending against Cook since last year will be made by Ehlke after a hearing on Sept. 8. Cook’s lawyers, Chris Van Wagner and Jessa Nicholson Goetz, want that case broken into 10 separate trials — one for each of the alleged victims — while prosecutors argue that all of the counts should be tried at the same time in the interest of judicial economy.
Cook’s lawyers also argued against merging the charges filed in May with the already-pending case.
Van Wagner and Nicholson Goetz argue that trying all of the charges together would be unfairly prejudicial, as more serious allegations involving some of the women could influence a jury to find Cook guilty on the other charges.
Prosecutors counter that all of the allegations should be heard together because that would give the jury 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.”
Hyland rejected that argument.
“On this record the court cannot accept the state’s argument that Alec Cook had the common scheme or plan the state identifies,” he wrote.
Actions described in the more recent criminal complaint, alleging that in 2014 Cook blocked a female student from leaving a laundry room of a dormitory, “do not share sufficient similarity to the worst of the later-charged conduct for the court to find a common scheme or plan,” Hyland wrote.
Prosecutors argued that journal excerpts written by Cook support their theory of an over-arching scheme, but Hyland said those excerpts were written after the alleged laundry room incident.
“It is also notable that those excerpts, while presenting a focus on sexual experiences and self-interests, do not suggest or discuss a desire to create fear, discomfort or terror on the part of the female population at the UW campus,” Hyland wrote. “The court believes that a pick-up artist is, by nature, one who seeks to have his way with someone based upon generating the opposite emotions,” and not fear or terror.
Hyland said the evidence is that Cook, in interactions with the female student in September 2014, “was being tenacious, insistent, even boorish in seeking her out,” but it will be up to a jury to decide whether he committed false imprisonment.