In 1983, Times staff writer David Johnston reported in View on the case of Tony Cooks, who had been convicted of murder after four trials. Johnston’s story, “Doubts Haunt Murder Conviction,” was judged the best news story of the year by the California-Nevada editors of United Press International. On Monday, in a fifth trial, Cooks was acquitted, partly on the basis of new information uncovered in Johnston’s investigation.
It’s been almost seven years since Tony Cooks of Compton could spend a day like Tuesday: sleeping well, awakening refreshed, tossing a football around with a 10-year-old nephew and feeling carefree.
Since 1980, Cooks, who is 24 years old, had been consumed fighting charges that he was one of three black youths who beat, stabbed and shot a crippled Paramount man as the victim’s terrified wife screamed at them to stop. So heartless were the killers that they ran off into the night laughing.
Ordeal Ended Monday
Cooks, who was out on bail for all but a few days, was tried five times for the murder of John Franklin Gould, a former minor league baseball player. There were two hung juries, one mistrial and a 1981 conviction that the trial judge tossed out. On Monday, the fifth trial--and Cooks’ ordeal--ended when a Superior Court jury of five blacks, five whites and two Asians found Cooks innocent.
Cooks, the victim of mistaken identity, said he has every reason to feel bitter about having to endure five trials, but doesn’t.
“Now I just feel great,” he said Tuesday night. “I’m just absorbing living free and I want to get away for awhile and think about what I want to do and then get on with my life.”
He had trouble finding work after his fourth trial because he told employers about his murder conviction. Then he concealed that fact, got a job as a painter in an industrial trailer factory and was regarded as such a model employee that when he told his boss he needed time off work to go to court “they thought I was lying, that I just made up the story about the murder trial to get off work.”
The factory later went broke. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Cooks said Wednesday. “Someone called today and offered me a job. I’ve been thinking about electronics and computer repair, but right now I just want to enjoy feeling free.” A high school dropout, he also said he wants to resume his schooling.
Confident of a Wonderful Life
He added that he is confident he will have a wonderful life now, that the five trials may even have been a blessing in disguise by forcing him to learn so much about the human condition. “If this hadn’t happened, I think I probably would have ended up like my friends I grew up with, all ruined on drugs,” Cooks said.
Cooks said that what weighed most heavily on him from the day of his arrest in March, 1980, until his acquittal six years and eight months later was that anyone would believe he had killed Gould, who at age 42 was bent over with arthritis.
“How could anyone think I would do this?” Cooks asked Tuesday night. “I was raised in the old-fashioned way: you tell the truth, you respect your elders. One thing we learned as kids was to respect your elders. If an old person comes to the door, anything I can do for them, I would.
“My grandmother, Henrietta Walker, my mother’s mother, she raised me in Greenwood in Mississippi for three years when I was in the third, fourth and fifth grades and she always told me that the truth will prevail, the truth will set you free.
“I always would think about that inside my mind through all of this: if you don’t lie, you don’t worry about nothing. And I remembered how when we were little kids, when we used to do bad, if we lied about each other, she would tell us the most important thing was to just tell the truth.
“But Mr. Gray (Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas A. Gray, who prosecuted Cooks) and the others, they don’t know me so they don’t know that. I understand that,” Cooks said. “To them I was just another black teen-ager in a predominantly white community.” (Gould was white.)
Cooks is the fourth of eight children born to David and Renetta Cooks, who fled the poverty and racism of rural Mississippi for Los Angeles in 1965. David Cooks worked in construction and drove trucks; Renetta worked in a Long Beach hospital food service department. By 1970 they had saved enough money to buy a modest house in a mostly white Paramount neighborhood.
Six of the eight Cooks children graduated from high school. One sister earned several small scholarships and several of the now-grown children are still in college. Two teachers told The Times that they recalled the Cooks children as polite, honest, average students who were good athletes.
One son, Tommy Cooks, 22, who wanted to become a Los Angeles police officer prior to the murder case, said he plans to open his own security business soon.
Tony Cooks had held numerous part-time and unskilled jobs, such as service station attendant, and had gone to night school before his life was interrupted by the murder charge.
Roosevelt Dorn, the judge at Cooks’ fourth trial, said Vernon J. Clover, the former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s detective who investigated the case, his first homicide, did a “shoddy” job, the worst investigation Dorn had ever seen. “This detective, I am astonished at his conduct,” Dorn said in 1981, specifying some of what he said were the many shortcomings in Clover’s investigation.
At the fifth trial, Clover, who has since retired on a disability pension and has become a probation officer in Arizona, admitted he destroyed some evidence that he felt was unimportant. Clover also admitted that pieces of evidence in his file were not included in the “murder book” he prepared and gave to the prosecution and defense.
Clover testified at the fifth trial that a field identification card that both Gray and Gus Poole, the original defense lawyer, said they never saw must have been “stuck” between pages of his reports until after the fourth trial. The evidence was discovered after Sheriff Sherman Block, reacting to a 1983 story in View, ordered a re-investigation of the Gould murder.
Cooks and most of the jurors in the fifth trial, interviewed following the verdict, said they do not believe Clover’s testimony that the evidence was stuck between the pages of his report.
This key piece of evidence was a pink, 3-by-5 sheriff’s field identification card. It showed that Douglas Henderson, a neighbor of Cooks, was stopped for questioning five minutes after the killings just two blocks away. Henderson was wearing clothing identical to what the victim’s widow and an eyewitness said one killer wore and he had a mustache. Henderson’s companions also fit the descriptions that the victim’s wife, Barbara Gould, gave deputies.
Jurors in the fifth trial said, after returning their not guilty verdict, that the field identification card was crucial to their decision that Cooks was innocent. They said the card, and Henderson’s testimony, prompted most of them to believe that Henderson is the real killer.
Henderson, in and out of court, has denied any role in the Gould murder.
Cooks said Tuesday night: “I was the victim of carelessness by a detective who didn’t care who he got just so long as he got somebody.”
Clover did not respond to a message left at his office in Tucson.
Cooks said that if someone in his family were murdered, he would want Gray or some other equally tenacious and skilled prosecutor to make sure the killers got sent to prison.
“I don’t have any bad feelings towards Mr. Gray for filing the charges against me,” Cooks said. “I feel that Mr. Gray got misled by Mr. Clover and the only thing I don’t understand is why, when Mr. Clover said he found the lost evidence, why didn’t Mr. Gray realize he had been misled and that I didn’t do this?”
Gray, reached at his home Tuesday night, said he did not wish to comment.
Cooks said that Gray owes him an apology. John Yzurdiaga, the court-appointed Gardena attorney who successfully represented Cooks in the fifth trial, said he believes either Gray or Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner should apologize to Cooks.
(A spokesman for Reiner said no apology is planned. “We believed in our evidence, the jury didn’t agree” spokesman Al Albergate said. He added that “at this time” Reiner’s office sees no reason to examine its handling of the case.)
“I’m just awed by Mr. Yzurdiaga,” Cooks said. “He knew just how to ask the right questions.”
Of his lawyer in the first four trials, Gus Poole of Gardena, Cooks said: “I think he’s a nice person. I have no hard feelings about Mr. Poole, but he just was not experienced to do a good job. I think maybe 10 years down the line, it would be different. I think he is going to be a good lawyer . . .”
Poole said Wednesday that “I am certainly glad and relieved that Tony got acquitted. I believe if evidence had not been withheld by the investigator and the prosecutor, I would have won an acquittal.”
Poole has also vigorously contested as unfair, Judge Dorn’s characterization of his work in the fourth trial as “incompetent.”
A Mountain of Bills
Cooks said the fact that his parents had to sell their Paramount home to pay legal and bail bond fees is what disturbs him most. He said he may sue the County of Los Angeles in hopes his parents can get their home back.
The worst moment in his ordeal, Cooks said, came when the fourth jury found him guilty in late 1981. He said he felt better when Judge Dorn tossed out the conviction, but felt down again when an appeals court reinstated the conviction. Dorn then told Cooks that the law required that a sentence be passed at that point and, after indicating from the bench that he believed Cooks was innocent, gave Cooks 16 years to life in prison. Then he freed Cooks on bail.
Cooks said that the turning point in his case came when a Times reporter interviewed him in 1982.
The reporter had been introduced to the case by prosecutor Gray, who believed that Dorn was letting Cooks get away with a particularly repugnant murder. The reporter asked Cooks why he killed John Franklin Gould. Cooks said he was innocent. The reporter said he didn’t believe that.
“No one will listen to me,” Cooks cried, his face knotting in frustration, his right fist pounding his left palm, his voice straining in a high pitch. “I did not do this thing, but no one will listen to me.”
The disjointed tale Cooks told prompted further inquiry, leading to a story that appeared in the View section one year later. The Nov. 27, 1983 article prompted attorneys Barry Tarlow and Brad Battson to take on Cooks’ appeal without charge, winning him a fifth trial.
Several times in the three years after the article, Cooks would call the reporter at home in the dead of night. A few times, Cooks sounded panicked and talked of mental images of prison. At other times, he spoke calmly, almost matter-of-factly and said he was contemplating suicide, saying it seemed the only way out, the only way to end the growing misery enveloping his parents and their other children.
Cooks even came to question his own sanity. “Sometimes I got to thinking that maybe I did this and I didn’t remember because I had a seizure or something,” Cooks, who suffers from epilepsy, once said. “So I went to the doctor and he said that couldn’t happen so I knew I couldn’t have had anything to do with it because if my eyes had seen it then my heart would feel it and I would feel guilty,” he said.
On Tuesday night, Cooks said, “I feel sorry for Mrs. Gould . . . I am not angry about our legal system because I think it is the best you can have and if you persist, the truth will out. But I do feel that I’ve been screwed around by a lot of careless people, people who didn’t care what happened so long as someone got caught and I was just the scapegoat.
“I’m a victim. I feel that I am a victim,” he said. “They tried to take my freedom for something I didn’t do and that’s wrong, but when you know you are right, you are right.”
“But now I’ve got my freedom,” Cooks said, “and that’s all I want.”