Attorney, sports writer, Gettysburg College women’s rugby coach and television host - 58-year-old Gettysburg native Jeff Cook has a diverse resume.
Today, his resignation as Adams County Chief Public Defender, the job that has likely demanded most of his time since 1987, becomes official.
Cook also writes sports for the Gettysburg Times, and calls games on Adams Community Television.
“It’s been a good run,” Cook said, reflecting in his private law office at 234 Baltimore St. in Gettysburg. “I’m not retiring, I’m just resigning as public defender. My private practice will remain here in town. I’m not ready to give up practicing law yet.”
The decision, Cook said, was amicable with the Adams County Commissioners, who appoint the public defender. He will finish out the rest of his cases via a private contract with the county.
“The county philosophy is probably one that the position is another unfunded mandate in a budgetary sense,” Cook said. “They had asked me to give up my private practice and I wasn’t willing to do that at this time. That being said, it has been a noble calling helping people who don’t have council.”
Public defenders are assigned to represent people charged with crimes and who can’t afford a private attorney.
“I think there is a misconception about public defenders,” Cook said. “People think if you get something for free, well it must not be very good. However, we passed the same bar and have the same degree as district attorneys.”
Cook graduated Summa Cum Laude from Gettysburg College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science. He is also a graduate of Duke University School of Law.
He came to Adams County in 1986 as an assistant public defender after “cutting his teeth” for 10 years in Dauphin County. For one- and a-half years, he worked in both counties at the same time. In 1987, he partnered in the Gettysburg firm of Wilcox, James and Cook, and the Adams County Commissioners appointed him as the successor to Clayton Wilcox as Chief Public Defender.
“In those days everyone was part-time, even the district attorney,” Cook said. “Things have changed dramatically in practicing law since then. The types of crimes have grown. There was no Internet so the child pornography cases were not happening and there were not as many sex crimes or they at least were not being reported like they are now. We also have video conferences now. I can sit in my office and talk to a client at the prison and see him on a video screen.”
Asked about his most notable case, Cook quickly referenced the Barry Laughman trial when his 21-year-old client was sentenced to life in prison for the killing and post-mortem rape of a neighbor and distant relative, 85-year-old Edna Laughman. He was released 17 years later based on DNA evidence.
“I saved the DNA from the scene because we couldn’t test for it then like we can test for it now,” Cook said. “Someday I knew we would get to the point where we could analyze it more thoroughly so I froze it and gave it to Mark Stoneking, a former Penn-State professor.”
After the sample made its way to Germany, brought it back to the United States for testing in 2003. Results showed the DNA did not belong to Laughman and he was freed one year later.
Not every client Cook has had showed signs of innocence like Laughman. Part of the job, he said, is keeping a level head even when you sense the person you are defending is hiding the truth.
“You have to show faith in your clients,” Cook said. “But there are times when you can tell their story is a little shaky and I always tell them, ‘look I believe you but do you think a jury will?’ A lot of clients will tell you what sentence they want or what they want to happen. My line to them is you’re not ordering off a menu at McDonalds. You present the best defense you can and see where it goes from there.”
Cook said many people played key roles in his decision to do the job as long as he has.
“I respect all the people I work with including the judges, police officers and district attorneys,” he explained. “Kristen Rice and Warren Bladen have also done a wonderful job as dedicated public servants in the Public Defender’s office. Dave James, who I share a building with, is also leaving the Public Defender’s office after many, many good years. I have been blessed in that sense and I will still get to work with many of them.”
Still running and swimming every week, Cook said he feels pretty good and doesn’t plan to go into hiding when May 1 rolls around.
“I still feel like I have a lot to offer with my private law practice,” he said. “This allows me to be more selective with cases I want to take and part of that is I have to learn how to say no. I’m not inclined to turn anyone away. I do look forward to carrying only about five files into court instead of 20.”
What will Cook miss most?
“Being an advocate for those people who are genuinely innocent but can’t afford the legal representation,” he said. “I got a lot of satisfaction out of presenting their side and helping them. We are there to present their side when nobody else is.”