Robert C. Cook has spent nearly 51 of his 68 years locked up in the Michigan prison system, sentenced to live out the rest of his days there for first-degree murder.
Recently, an Oakland County judge decided otherwise. Citing review of case history, reports on behavior in prison and other factors, Judge Martha Anderson of Oakland County Circuit Court has resentenced Cook to 40 – 60 years in prison with credit for time served, making him eligible for parole.
“Is 50 years enough? I do believe 50 years is long enough,” Anderson said at the conclusion of an Oct. 30 resentencing hearing
Cook’s new sentence resulted from U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 2012 and 2016 that make mandatory life in prison for juveniles unconstitutional and require the cases to again go before a judge who can decide if a lesser penalty is in order.
Cook was a couple months shy of his 18th birthday on Dec. 29, 1969 when he climbed atop a gas station in Pontiac with a loaded, high-powered rifle and laid in wait for his victim — a man he insists to this day was going to kill him if he didn’t act first.
A shot fired by Cook tore into Lloyd Tanner, a 24-year-old who Cook knew from a Pontiac motorcycle gang. Tanner died about four months later, having undergone several surgeries and developing infections tied to the bullet wound. Prosecutors heightened Cook’s charge to murder, and following a jury trial he was found guilty in 1971.
Cook didn’t deny shooting Tanner, but believed it was justified. More than five decades after the slaying, Cook hasn’t changed his mind.
Prior to Anderson’s ruling last Friday, he discounted claims by prosecutors that it was a revenge killing after being humiliated by Tanner and another gang member.
“The prosecutor wants you to think that this was a cold-blooded killing. That’s not true,” Cook said.
‘I punked him out’
Cook, who filed a number of appeals over the years, asserts that the case was “not properly investigated” and that the shooting happened because his life had been threatened after he stopped Tanner and another man from raping a female acquaintance in Pontiac. He was simply following “the rule of the streets back then,” he said.
“I punked him out. That’s what started this whole thing…(then) I stopped him from getting me first,” Cook said.
Cook also told the court that he feels his debt to society has been satisfied and that he poses no threat.
“I don’t think I’m a bad guy. I don’t think I deserved to be in prison for 51 years…any crime I committed I feel I paid for. That’s the bottom line,” he said.
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Cook’s attorney, Margaret Raben, argued at the resentencing hearing that Cook was an impulsive kid with a history of mental illness who had been raised in an abusive household. Living on his own at 17, he gravitated to the motorcycle gang because he craved a sense of belonging and acceptance.
“Do I think he’s reformed? Yes, yes I do,” Raben said.
As for punishment, Raben said: “How much is enough? I think 50-plus years is enough for this particular crime. This stupid, impulsive crime — because that’s what it was.”
Yet assistant prosecutor David Hutson argued that Cook had indeed committed first degree premeditated murder, and that he belonged behind bars for life. A self-defense claim simply didn’t ring true, he said, adding: “I don’t think any factors (in the case) mitigate defensive behavior.”
Days before the killing, Cook secured a gun and bullets. It wasn’t a crime committed in the heat of passion or due to impulsivity, but rather it was planned out, Hutson said.
“He sat there (on the gas station roof) and laid in wait. And when he had the opportunity, he took a shot…the facts of this case are as such, the very definition of premeditation and deliberation,” Hutson said.
Question of rehabilitation
Hutson also argued that Cook has a history of being manipulative, hasn’t taken responsibility for the killing, hasn’t shown remorse and “can’t be rehabilitated.”
Anderson, however, thinks otherwise.
In evaluating Cook’s case, she recognized his rough start in life, “lacking structure and guidance.” He had a number of run-ins with the juvenile justice system and was drawn to people who weren’t good for him.
But most importantly, Anderson said, was the question of rehabilitation. She said that Cook has taken advantage of available education and training opportunities while incarcerated, and that it’s been 25 years since he last had a reported physical altercation. Acknowledging that there’s no way of knowing for sure whether or not Cook will commit another crime if released, Anderson also noted his current health issues — cataracts and orthopedic problems which require him to use a cane. And she told Cook, “You don’t appear to be as angry as you once were.”
In response to the new sentence, Cook merely said “thank you.”
Anderson then wished him luck, adding “Don’t make me regret my decision.”
A parole board will have final say on when Cook is set free. If released, he’s expected to live in a half-way house until arrangements are made for him to move to Florida to live with his sister who’s agreed to take him in. For now, Cook is in the Macomb Correctional Facility, where inmates anticipating release are enrolled in reentry programs.
As in courts throughout the nation, efforts continue to hold resentencing hearings in Oakland County Circuit Court for remaining cases of inmates convicted as juveniles and serving life in prison without parole.