It took five trials and almost seven years for Tony Cooks' nightmare to end, but Monday in a Compton courtroom, a jury found him innocent of a murder in which he contended that he was a victim of mistaken identity involving a neighbor who resembled him.
Wild shouts and jubilation filled the courtroom as Clerk Denis Leeds read the verdict after six days of testimony and 4 1/2 hours of deliberation.
Family friends ran out into the hallway where Cooks' mother, Renetta, and other family members had held a prayer circle while waiting for the news that they could not bear to hear in person.
"This is the best feeling I've ever had in my life," said Cooks, 24, as he hugged and shook hands with jurors.
Subject of Article
The Cooks case was the subject of a 1983 Times story about whether Cooks had been wrongly convicted and had been the victim of mistaken identity. The first and third trials ended in hung juries, the second in a mistrial and the fourth in a conviction.
The judge in the fourth trial, Superior Court Judge Roosevelt Dorn, who has a reputation for being tough on defendants, tossed out the conviction. When it was reinstated on appeal, Dorn said that although he believed Cooks was innocent, he was required by law to pass sentence. He ordered Cooks to prison for 16 years to life.
He then freed Cooks on bail and attorneys Barry Tarlow and Brad Battson took up the appeal without charge, winning a new trial. Attorney John Yzurdiaga of Gardena was appointed to defend Cooks. With Monday's acquittal, Yzurdiaga said the Los Angeles County district attorney's office owes Cooks an apology for the seven-year ordeal.
Cooks had just turned 18 when his nightmare began about noon on March 7, 1980. He was strolling along a street in Paramount with a friend, Ray Coleman, and a 14-year-old neighbor boy who was a casual acquaintance. Suddenly Cooks was stopped by sheriff's deputies, handcuffed and told he was under arrest on suspicion of a murder that had occurred seven weeks earlier.
On Jan. 19, 1980, three black youths had jumped John Franklin Gould, 42, a former minor league baseball player who was bent over with arthritis, as he walked toward his apartment on Orange Avenue in Paramount as his wife locked the car on the street. Gould curled into a ball--beaten, stabbed and then shot by the youths who ran off into the night laughing. Gould died 12 days later.
The victim's widow, Barbara Gould, said one assailant held her off. She described him that night as a stocky, black youth wearing a knit cap, black leather jacket, dark pants and having a "bushy mustache." Helen Foster, a school crossing guard who saw the same assailant for "a split second" from 65 feet away in the dark, gave a similar description.
At Cooks' first four trials, the defense was unaware that five minutes after the killing and just two blocks away, three black youths--who were never charged in the case--had been stopped by sheriff's deputies. All three fit the descriptions given by Gould and Foster. One youth, Douglas Henderson, was wearing a cap, a black leather jacket, dark pants and had a mustache, according to sheriff's field identification cards that were entered into evidence only in the fifth trial.
Seven weeks after the killing, the school crossing guard saw three black youths walking up the street and summoned deputies. She identified Cooks as the killer. However, she was unable to identify the 14-year-old, even though she had picked him out of a police photo album earlier that morning as the perpetrator of an unrelated neighborhood assault.
The 14-year-old, who is Henderson's half-brother, confessed that he, Cooks and Coleman were the killers. As a result of his confession, he spent more than six years in California Youth Authority custody. Yzurdiaga said he believes that the boy had nothing to do with the slaying.
At Cooks' fifth trial, Yzurdiaga introduced previously undiscovered documents showing that the boy told his probation officer, who has since died, that his confession was "a lie" made up to satisfy a persistent detective.
Based on the confession and identifications by Mrs. Gould and Foster, Cooks was charged with second-degree murder. Coleman was never charged.
In 1983, after the fourth trial, the 14-year-old told The Times that he would concoct a story to send Cooks or anyone else to jail if it was necessary to protect Henderson, whom he was careful to avoid implicating.
Sheriff's Detective Vernon J. Clover, who investigated the case, told The Times in 1983 that Henderson was the only suspect in the case until Cooks' arrest.
During the fifth trial, prosecutor Thomas A. Gray showed a 1979 color picture of a black man to the sheriff's deputy who questioned Henderson on the night of the murder. "It resembles the defendant," Deputy Lester Fatone said. He was looking at a picture, not of Cooks, but of Henderson.
Cooks said that in the first four trials he repeatedly asked his attorney, Gus Poole of Gardena, to call Henderson as a witness, but Poole declined. It later came out that Poole was Henderson's attorney in an unrelated criminal case. Poole, who has said in and out of court that he believes Henderson is the real killer, told Cooks he did not believe calling Henderson as a witness would help Cooks. Poole has said he saw no conflict of interest in representing Cooks because the two cases were unrelated.
However, at Cooks' fifth trial, Henderson was called to testify for the first time. He disregarded the advice of his attorney, Morris B. Jones, to take the Fifth Amendment to avoid the risk of incriminating himself. Henderson denied any involvement in Gould's slaying.
After the verdict came in, jurors told reporters that Henderson's wisecracking and flippant conduct on the witness stand, together with the field identification card made the night of the murder, convinced most of them that he should have been prosecuted for Gould's death.
Half a dozen jurors inquired as to whether Henderson could now be prosecuted, a prospect that Yzurdiaga said is unlikely. "The identifications are too tainted and the trail too cold," he said.
"We felt the wrong identification was made," said jury foreman Valerie Webster, "and it should have been Doug Henderson."
Six jurors said they did not believe testimony by former detective Clover that the field identification cards on Henderson and two other youths were "stuck" between the pages of his report on the Gould murder case and thus never seen by either the prosecutor or Poole, the original defense attorney.
Clover testified that while he spoke to Henderson's mother, aunt and probation officer, he was unable to reach Henderson by telephone and thus dropped him from the investigation.
After The Times' story appeared, Sheriff Sherman Block ordered a re-investigation of the case. Clover and Detective Al Sett of the homicide bureau testified that they worked a day and a half, without taking notes or making any tape-recordings. The re-investigation turned up no new evidence.
Cooks' family, who lost their home paying legal and bail bond fees, formed a prayer circle in the hallway outside Commissioner Elizabeth A. Baron's courtroom just before the verdict was returned. "I just can't go in there," his mother, Renetta Cooks, said as she waited outside for the verdict.
She said that when she heard screams from the courtroom, she at first feared her son had been convicted.
After the verdict, Cooks said he was upset that Gray, who prosecuted all five trials, did not show up to hear the verdict.
"Mr. Gray should have known a long time ago that I didn't do this. . . . Now I just want to put this behind me and start my life," Cooks said.