“We were glad to get anything,” said Becky Cooksey Love, one Cooksey’s sisters. She added that they were happy to receive closure and to finally have answers in their brother’s case. The Alford plea means that a defendant does not admit guilt to an offense, but rather admits that the guilty plea is in his best interest. In this case, Crawford and his attorney Frank Lannom said that Crawford entered the Alford plea because of his poor health and the poor health of his wife.
Crawford pleaded “no-contest,” to voluntary manslaughter, which means he did not refute the charges brought up against him. Crawford waived his rights to appear before a grand jury, and other rights, including rights to due process, to make an appeal, to confront witnesses in a public trial and others.
“We were ready to go to trial,” said Wilson County Sheriff Terry Ashe after the proceedings, noting that there may be charges brought against other individuals in the future.
George Benny Page, a Lebanon resident and step-uncle of Cooksey, was arrested in July of this year for intentionally providing false information to the authorities, a Class D felony with a maximum sentence of four years. Ashe said that Page, Crawford and Cooksey were all together on the night Cooksey was murdered. Cooksey was 19 at the time.
If the case had gone to trial, Ashe and Lannom indicated there was the possibility that Crawford would not have been found guilty because of the age of the case and evidence as well as the declining memories of witnesses.
Ashe reopened the case approximately 18 months ago at the request of Cooksey’s family who said they suspected Cooksey’s death was a homicide. Ashe said they exhumed Cooksey’s remains and sent it to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville under direction of UT’s Anthropology Department.
No autopsy was performed on Cooksey’s body in 1969 when his death was ruled a hit-and-run, and after the exhumation in 2009, forensic analysis at UT yielded important factual information about the nature of his death. Deputy District Attorney Bobby Hibbett, who presented the facts of the case in court, said Cooksey’s body had multiple broken bones, including broken ribs, a cracked skull and many other injuries.
Investigators said the body appeared to have been hit by the same car more than once. According to the Sheriff’s Department, Cooksey’s body was found half-clothed and unrecognizable in the middle of Highway 70 North just south of Spring Creek about 4:30 a.m. on July 14, 1969.
Also, forensic analysis discovered that two of Cooksey’s front teeth were missing, which supported witness testimonies that Crawford had kept two of Cooksey’s teeth and showed them to individuals through the years.
Ashe said the Sheriff’s Department and other authorities interviewed more than 25 witnesses since the case has been reopened. Crawford’s brother J.B. Crawford said that James had said he killed Cooksey with a baseball bat and threw it into a sinkhole near their home.
Hibbett also said Crawford’s ex-wife Francis Crawford informed investigators that she saw Cooksey inside Crawford’s car on the night he was murdered. Crawford told her Cooksey was drunk, and she said he appeared to be slumped over in the passenger seat.
According to the witness, in the early morning Crawford returned home with his car washed, and took Francis to where Cooksey’s body was discovered on Highway 70 North. Crawford told her that he had killed Cooksey and said if she told anyone he would kill her.
James Crawford did not speak during the proceedings on Monday beyond answering questions from Judge John Wootten Jr. to verify that he entered the plea of his own free will along with other administrative questions.
Cooksey’s three sisters were present at the court and said they were satisfied to get an admission of guilt from Crawford after all of these years.
“It’s been a long road,” said Connie Cooksey Minick, Charles Cooksey’s oldest sister. When asked if their parents would have been happy, she added, “Today is their anniversary, so I think they’re smiling.”
Wootten told Crawford that from here on out he had to conduct himself as a “super citizen” in order to not violate his probation and face further charges, adding further, “Don’t test me.”
“The family was in agreement and we’re okay with that,” Ashe said regarding the sentence Crawford received. “There still may be others charged,” he added. “We are happy for the remaining family that some closure is now beginning to happen in this tragic death,” Ashe said.
Staff Writer Patrick Hall may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.