In response to an attack on the Commonwealth Attorney

Published 6:47 pm Friday, May 1, 2015

To the Editor:

I have read and reviewed with understandable and great interest Ronnie Cornwell’s attack upon our Commonwealth’s Attorney.

At the threshold, I went to high school with Mr. Cornwell and have known him since the eighth grade. As he states, he served as a probation officer for over 20 years and, in my judgment, did an excellent job serving the people of the Commonwealth. I know Mr. Cornwell to be a good and decent man.

However, I respectfully but vehemently disagree with his assessment of the City of Franklin and Southampton County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney.

In my over 40 years of defending criminal cases, I have had the professional and intellectual stimulation and, indeed honor and privilege of opposing some of the finest men and women ever to be produced by this Commonwealth, who have labored unselfishly in the cause of justice. However, among these opponents, Mr. Cooke and his predecessor, the Honorable Richard C. Grizzard, have been the best beyond question. To question the professionalism, integrity and/or judgment of Mr. Cooke is to manifest an ignorance of the level of professionalism, integrity and devotion to the system that he has manifested each day of his professional career.

It is fundamental to the American system of justice that a prosecutor has a dual obligation. Not only is he or she charged with the responsibility of prosecuting vigorously and obtaining a conviction and just punishment, if the circumstances in fact so demand, but he or she is also charged with the responsibility of seeking justice. If a defense attorney, who is solely charged with the responsibility of defending his client under our system of advocacy, seeks justice to the full extent demanded of a prosecutor, then he or she will probably at one time or another be guilty of a violation of the Code of Professional Responsibility in not providing zealous representation and/or be civilly liable for ineffective representation. Mr. Cooke understands this responsibility well and certainly acts within the demands of this responsibility.

As an aside, I have no question that Mr. Cooke, in the absence of a conflict of interest, would prosecute anyone that the oath of his office requires. I have seen him do it.

On the other hand, I have witnessed his ability to make the right but unpopular decision in refusing to prosecute if he believes that the defendant is unjustly accused or if prosecution requires the use of questionable testimony.

As an example, in Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court of the United States established the unconditional obligation of a prosecutor to offer exculpatory evidence, whether as to punishment or guilt or innocence, to the defense. Mr. Cooke’s devotion to this defining principle is unquestionable.

In short, in response to Mr. Cornwell, in my humble opinion, his charges are completely unjust. Mr. Cooke, everyday, demonstrates the professionalism of a prosecutor that we all can admire and should demand. Southampton County and the city of Franklin are blessed to have Mr. Cooke. His ability, integrity, professionalism, devotion to the Rule of Law and to the Constitution are beyond question.


Richard E. Railey Jr.