Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Texas man gets life in prison for '04 rape of developmentally disabled woman

From The Dallas Morning News Oct. 25:

After years of mystery, someone will finally pay the price for the brutal sexual assault on Frances Cook, a 51-year-old developmentally disabled woman who died under suspicious circumstances after lingering in a hospital for more than two months.

On Oct. 23, Francisco Berber, a man who claimed that she was his girlfriend, received a life sentence after pleading guilty to aggravated sexual assault of a disabled person. He will not be eligible for parole for at least 30 years.

"Frances was a sweet thing, an absolutely 100 percent innocent victim," said Assistant District Attorney Erin Hendricks, a sexual assault prosecutor. "He literally raped her to death."

The circumstances surrounding Frances' brutal rape and subsequent death passed with little notice until last year, when authorities arrested her brother, Douglas Cook, in the August 2007 slaying of their 84-year-old mother, Nora. Her death prompted police to reopen Frances' case. Authorities paid for special DNA testing, which showed that a male in Mr. Berber's paternal lineage contributed to the genetic material found inside Frances.

"It's hard to imagine how anybody could harm somebody handicapped, somebody so sweet like my aunt Frances," said Lance Cook, one of Douglas' sons.

At about 10, Frances underwent surgery to have a brain tumor removed. Friends and family say she ceased to develop. She remained childlike – with the mind and body of about a 10-year-old.

In the summer of 2004, Mr. Berber had begun hanging around with Frances. A convicted felon, he lived in the neighborhood and the pair frequently played cards together. "By his own admission, he knew Frances was slow in her mind," Ms. Hendricks said. "He would see her color in coloring books."

One neighbor described seeing Mr. Berber lead her into a vacant house on the block. Mr. Berber later admitted that he had sexual contact with her inside the house, but he claimed that he only had sex with her once, though Ms. Hendricks say the victim's injuries belie his claim.

In June 2004, Frances told her mother that she was bleeding. By the time Nora sought medical help, Frances had a severe infection in and around her genitals.

Dr. Bruce Fine, a doctor at Medical City Dallas Hospital, ordered a rape exam. A small amount of foreign DNA was found. "He said it was the worst case of human abuse he had ever seen," Ms. Hendricks said.

Nora later told police Mr. Berber had told her that he wanted to marry Frances. She also suspected he might have had something to do with her injuries.

But Frances told police and doctors that she hadn't had sex with anyone, consensual or nonconsensual. Frances told police she had fallen off of the porch.

Frances never regained consciousness after surgery. She died in September 2004.

The medical examiner subsequently ruled her death a homicide. But police ended up classifying it as an "unexplained death" because they said they couldn't prove how the injuries occurred. Police questioned Mr. Berber, and he denied having sex with her.

On Aug. 18, 2007, neighbors asked police to check on Nora. They hadn't seen her in days. When rescue workers arrived, they smelled an odor and found flies around the windows. They knocked, and Douglas answered the door.

Rescue workers found his mother, Nora, slain in her bed, apparently strangled. Douglas confessed to police that he had beaten his mother on Aug. 13, according to police records. They had frequently argued, and he had already served a two-year sentence in prison for assaulting her around the time Frances was injured.

In April, Douglas Cook pleaded guilty to manslaughter in his mother's death and received a 25-year-sentence. Mr. Berber was indicted the following month on the aggravated assault charge. He later admitted to a relationship with Frances.

"He tried to tell the court that Frances was his girlfriend, that he made love to her, that he didn't hurt her, but the physical evidence overwhelmingly contradicted anything he had to say about his encounter with Frances," Ms. Hendricks said. "Finally, justice has been done."