No easy answers in Dalvin Cook's trial as FSU RB is found not guilty
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – One had been caught driving with a suspended license while on probation for battery. One was set to plead no contest after he was accused of shoving a bottle of cologne down his pants and trying to walk out of a Wal-Mart. One planned to plead no contest after he was accused of violating environmental regulations in a case involving old tires. Their reasons for being in Courtroom 2F on Monday morning varied. Their attire did not. The three men wore chains and Leon County blue. They all clinked when they walked.
These men were the last bit of business before Judge Augustus Aikens turned his attention to the State of Florida vs. Dalvin Cook. Cook, the sophomore tailback who is Florida State’s best offensive player, couldn’t stop watching the men as they lined the wall of the courtroom. Even if Cook looked away to consult with his attorneys, the clink of another defendant would draw his gaze again. Aikens had said during jury selection on Friday that Cook’s trial would begin and end on Monday. By the end of the day, would Cook be in danger of wearing that blue? And if he was, what would that mean about his chances to wear garnet and gold again? He had denied the charge that brought him to Courtroom 2F, but what would happen when his football future and possibly his freedom were placed in the hands of four male and two female Leon County residents he didn’t know?
Misdemeanor battery cases don’t typically draw much attention. They usually get dispatched without much fanfare. But a confluence of defendant and circumstances pushed this case to trial. Cook had been accused of punching a 21-year-old Tallahassee woman named Madison Geohegan outside a local bar called Clyde’s and Costello’s early on the morning of June 23. The next day, Florida State freshman quarterback De'Andre Johnson punched a woman at a bar called Yianni’s. Note that the previous sentence did not include the words “accused” or “allegedly.” Johnson punched the woman. It’s all on video. Cook’s case, meanwhile, had no video – only the shifting words of the people present.
The two witnesses who placed Cook throwing a punch were his (admittedly intoxicated) accuser and her (admittedly more intoxicated) friend. Geohegan admitted to saying some awful things to a group of Florida State players, and those players admitted to saying some awful things to her. She also admitted to shoving Florida State receiver Travis Rudolph, who was never accused of any wrongdoing. The three witnesses who supported Cook were three Seminoles teammates who were with him that night. Two of those teammates declined to mention the third to a Tallahassee police investigator. All three changed their stories between speaking to the investigator and taking the stand Monday, and two of them were exposed by their own taped statements. The one allegedly independent defense witness was a 22-year-old Florida State finance major who nearly perjured himself explaining why he didn’t respond to calls from investigators. There were no easy answers in Cook’s case, because each one led to another question.
Johnson’s case has nothing to do with Cook’s case from a legal standpoint. They were separate events involving different people at different times in different places. Yet they became inextricably linked in the court of public opinion. After the Tallahassee Democrat published the Johnson video on July 6, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher dismissed Johnson from the team. A day later, Florida State president John Thrasher issued a statement that included the following sentence: “I have no tolerance for the kind of behavior exhibited in this case.” At the time, Cook had been accused of the kind of behavior exhibited in Johnson’s case. So when state attorney Willie Meggs elected to charge Cook with battery on July 10, an indefinitely suspended Cook faced a simple choice: Fight the case or find somewhere else to play football. To stay at Florida State, Cook needed the members of a jury to say they didn’t think he did it.
Those were the stakes Monday when assistant state attorney Sarah Kathryn Dugan squared off against Cook’s Miami-based legal team of Ricky Patel and Joey McCall. Given the circumstances, Vegas would have installed the defense attorneys as heavy favorites. All Dugan appeared to have were some photos of Geohegan’s split lip and blood-flecked chin and two witnesses who admitted their memories were clouded by tequila sunrises. But Dugan did not make it easy on her opponents.
The trial began with a question to the judge about the admission of an audio recording of Cook’s July 1 interview with Tallahassee police investigator Jerritt Federico. Patel and McCall wanted to suppress the recording because they felt it undermined Cook’s choice to exercise his Fifth Amendment right not to testify. Aikens listened to the recording out of earshot of the gallery – and without the jury in the courtroom – and ruled in favor of the defense. But Dugan would find a way to get the words Cook said to Federico in front of the jury later in the trial by walking Federico through the interview. By the time McCall objected, prompting a lengthy sidebar followed by a recess and another sidebar, Dugan had allowed the jury to hear that Cook denied being involved in any kind of argument to Federico in spite of the fact that teammates Rudolph, quarterback Deondre Francois and receiver Da’Vante Phillips would later tell Federico and the jury that, like them, Cook was involved in an argument with Geohegan.
Dugan had scored points earlier in the trial as well. She started off by guiding Geohegan through the timeline that night, and Geohegan’s testimony suggested alcohol had not impaired her memory as much as the defense wanted the jury to believe. Geohegan conceded points – her intoxication, shoving Rudolph – before the defense could attack them.
The entire mess began with an unwanted advance followed by a poor choice of words in response. The witnesses all agreed that as patrons poured out of the bar following closing time, Phillips, a freshman receiver, asked Geohegan if she had a boyfriend. Geohegan responded that she did have a boyfriend. Though she had not revealed his identity at this point in the argument, that boyfriend is Auburn cornerback T.J. Davis, who like Geohegan grew up in Tallahassee. According to Geohegan and the players who testified, Phillips then made reference to her dancing with a man in the bar. Geohegan said her angry denial caused Phillips to call her a “ho.” Geohegan testified that she responded with something to the effect of “Your mother is a ho.” That set off Phillips, a Miami native who lived with Cook’s grandmother after Phillips’ mother was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2013. All the parties agreed the argument escalated from there.
All parties also agreed that Cook initially tried to play peacemaker. Where those stories diverge is what happened after Geohegan made contact with Rudolph. She said she shoved him. Though Rudolph didn’t mention a punch when he initially spoke to TPD’s Federico, he, Phillips and Francois all testified Monday that Geohegan punched Rudolph in the back of the head when he turned away. Phillips – the player neither Rudolph nor Francois told Federico was there -- testified Monday that after that moment, all four players walked across a street. But in a recorded interview with Federico on July 20, Phillips said he and Francois led Rudolph away while Cook stayed behind and screamed at Geohegan. “It was screaming as in putting sense in your head screams,” Phillips told Federico in the interview.
Geohegan and her friend, Keara Lubeskie, testified that Cook then punched Geohegan in the mouth. They both testified that Lubeskie jumped in between Cook and Geohegan and that the other players grabbed Cook, who flailed at Geohegan with more punches. The players, meanwhile, said Cook punched no one.
The defense helped its case midway through the trial when Tallahassee police officer Matthew Smidt, who was dispatched after Geohegan’s 911 call, expressed disbelief that a punch in the mouth from the 215-pound Cook would cause only a split lip and no major bruising. “To me, no it did not look like she got hit by a fist in the face,” Smidt testified. That defense momentum was short-lived, though. Federico was the next witness on the stand, and the introduction of Cook’s statements – as well as Federico’s observation that Cook wouldn’t look him in the eye – seemed to give the prosecution an edge.
Dugan also made up some ground on a problematic issue when Federico calmly explained how Geohegan identified Cook, whom she had not met before the night in question. She had not given the police an ID on that night. Smidt testified that he called up Florida State’s roster on his laptop, but after about 45 seconds of looking through thumbnail images, Geohegan and Lubeskie could identify only Rudolph, the one player Lubeskie knew previously. Geohegan had testified that several days later she had seen Cook again at a club called The Mint and that he had smirked at her when they made eye contact. Lubeskie had followed Rudolph on Instagram, hoping to find a photo of the man they believed punched Geohegan. They found one that included Cook. Lubeskie sent it to the police, and Geohegan sent it to her father, who she described as a Florida State fan. Geohegan’s father said the person looked like Dalvin Cook. Later, Federico would show Geohegan a photo lineup that included driver’s license photos of six men. All six men had similar skin tones. All had similar facial hair. All had dreadlocks. Federico testified that Geohegan pointed immediately to Cook’s photo. Later, the defense would challenge the photo lineup because Cook was the only player pictured who was involved that night.
The strangest moment of the trial came when the defense called Grant Jenkins, a Florida State finance major. Jenkins claimed he watched the entire argument while a homeless man kept talking to him about “suing New Zealand.” Jenkins claimed that at one point, he moved between the parties in an effort to stop the argument. Jenkins came to the defense’s attention because of a (since-deleted) Facebook post he made after reading an ESPN.com story about the charges against Cook. Jenkins also claimed that no one from TPD or the state attorney’s office tried to contact him before his interview with the state attorney’s office last week. After Jenkins testified that he had never received a call or voicemail from TPD’s Federico, Dugan pressed him. Jenkins then said if Federico left him a voicemail, it was unopened. Dugan then recalled Geohegan, who said she’d never seen Jenkins, and Federico, who confirmed that he had an outgoing call on his cell phone matching Jenkins’ number. How did Federico find the number? The number and the name “Grant” were given to him, Federico said, by the litigious Kiwi-hater Jenkins described.
In their closing statements, the attorneys asked the questions that had been floating around the courtroom throughout the trial.
What would Geohegan have to gain other than citywide scorn by taking her accusation all the way to trial?
Someone punched her, and the defense hasn’t offered a plausible alternative. If Cook didn’t do it, who did?
Why did the players change their stories between meeting with police and testifying at trial?
How could a musclebound college athlete punch a small woman multiple times and only cause a split lip?
How could two admittedly intoxicated people remember events in such great detail?
Aikens finished his instructions and sent the jury to deliberate at 7:10 p.m. By 7:33, word spread through the halls that the jury was headed back to the courtroom. Everyone reassembled. The judge told Cook to stand. The verdict was passed to the judge, who passed it to the clerk and told her to publish it.
Minutes later, Cook stood outside the courtroom flanked by Patel and McCall. “I’m just thankful and blessed the truth came out,” Cook told reporters. Patel wouldn’t allow Cook to answer a question about Geohegan’s possible motive for making the accusation, nor would he allow Cook to answer a question about why he originally told Federico he wasn’t involved in any argument outside Clyde’s and Costello’s. Patel would allow Cook to answer a question about resuming his football career. “It’s time to go to work,” Cook said. “Back to the field.” Less than two hours after the verdict, Florida State announced that Cook’s indefinite suspension had been lifted. He’s expected back at practice Tuesday. The Seminoles open Sept. 5 against Texas State.
A few minutes later, Cook and his legal team walked through a corridor in the basement of the courthouse. A Leon County sheriff’s deputy who had been manning a metal detector noted the exiting men in suits and nodded. “Y’all have a good one,” the deputy said. Then a day that began with Cook listening to the clank of nearby prisoner’s chains ended with him walking into the sticky twilight completely unfettered.