Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook became so jealous when he discovered his girlfriend was talking to another man that he squeezed her throat until she couldn't breathe, a prosecutor said Wednesday during opening statements in Cook's domestic assault trial.
But a defense attorney said the woman lied about being choked in October. David Valentini told jurors that Chantel Baker was angry and drunk when she punched Cook multiple times, and the 6-foot-2, 212-pound football player reflexively struck her after she hit him in the back of the head.
"Just because he's bigger doesn't make him the aggressor," Valentini said. "He has a right to protect himself."
Cook, 25, is on trial in Hennepin County on felony charges of domestic assault by strangulation and third-degree assault. Authorities were called to his home early on Oct. 22 and said they found his girlfriend of 10 months crying and bloodied. They said the marks on her neck and hemorrhaging in her eye were consistent with strangulation. Medical records show her eardrum was perforated and she lost hearing for two weeks.
Cook missed that weekend's game against the Green Bay Packers because he was in jail. Assistant County Attorney Sarah Hilleren said Cook called Baker from jail and said it was her fault. Baker felt responsible and apologized, Hilleren said, and more than two weeks later, she went to police and said she had lied about being choked.
Hilleren said despite Baker's recanted statement, the evidence — including photos of her injuries — will prove Cook choked Baker.
"This case is about the defendant's jealousy and rage, and it is about Ms. Baker's misplaced guilt," Hilleren said.
Cook and Baker are both from Virginia, and Cook regularly flew Baker to his home in Eden Prairie. According to opening statements, Cook, Baker, Cook's roommate and another man went to dinner and drinks and visited a strip club on Oct. 21.
Hilleren said Cook was disrespecting Baker that evening and became defiant, leaving the strip club without him and refusing to get out of the limo. Hilleren said Baker was texting another man, and Cook got angry.
Valentini gave a different version, saying Baker was drunk and told another man via text that she loved him. Valentini said Cook was deflated because he intended to propose to Baker that weekend.
At Cook's house, Baker threw a lamp at Cook, but missed him. Hilleren said Cook tossed the woman on the bed and began choking her, but Baker fought back. When she got up, Cook "walloped her so hard on the side of the head" that she hit the wall, Hilleren said.
Hilleren said a neighbor called 911 after hearing bangs, screaming, crying and Cook repeatedly yelling, "Are you talking to him? Why are you talking to him?"
In Valentini's account, Cook was trying to talk to Baker when she sucker-punched him in the face. Then, Valentini said, Cook was struck in the back of the head. Thinking Baker had a weapon, Cook whirled around to bat it away but instead hit Baker, Valentini said.
"Mr. Cook is blessed with quick reflexes and strength," Valentini said.
Valentini said Baker tripped and fell into the wall, then got up and began punching Cook in the face. Valentini said Cook held Baker's hands together near her throat in an attempt to get her to stop punching him. Valentini said that could have caused Baker's neck injuries.
"Mr. Cook never put his hands on Ms. Baker's neck and squeezed it to cut off any blood supply or air to her," Valentini said.
Cook and Baker are both expected to testify in the case.
Cook has been free on supervised release pending his trial. He missed the last 10 games of the season. The Vikings have said they won't make a decision about his status until after the trial, and Cook could face discipline from the NFL under the league's personal conduct policy.