The Alexander Family Murders : A Case of Careless Violence in the South-Central Gang Wars
KERMIT ALEXANDER is upset. He’s too much of a gentleman to be blunt about it. But sitting in his second-story Westwood office, the emotion rumbles out of him like some volcanic aftershock.
In person, Alexander makes a formidable impression. Although he’s retired from professional football, his biceps bulge like cast-iron drainpipes under his plaid shirt. Sitting behind his desk, he comes across as a strong, masculine presence, a leader, and someone, one senses, not to be lightly crossed. But there’s also a sense of warmth and caring about him, which is good, because at the moment he’s struggling hard to keep control.
On the morning of Aug. 31, 1984, three members of the Rolling 60s Crips street gang drove up to his mother’s home in South-Central Los Angeles. While one gang member stayed in the van with the engine running, two others went in the front door with a .30-caliber M-1 semiautomatic carbine. When they came out five minutes later, Alexander’s mother, Ebora Alexander, 58, was dead on the kitchen floor in her nightgown and slippers. His 24-year-old sister, Dietra Alexander, had been shot sitting up in bed. Two of his nephews, Damani Garner and Damon Bonner, had been shot in their heads as they slept.
For three years, Alexander tried not to think about the murders. But now that the trials are finally over and the killers at last convicted, long-suppressed feelings have begun to come out. Frankly, he tells his visitor, he doesn’t know how to deal with them. The mourning process is just beginning. And, he says, his voice beginning to break, “I’m just not going to talk about it.”
He brings up a lot more, but in his agitation it’s hard to follow all that he’s saying. He makes cryptic references to things that were said and done in the wake of the killings. One day, he says, he’s going to have to deal with it. But he can’t say anything now. He grew up there. “My family still lives there.” And the fact of the matter is, “someone could get killed.”
KERMIT’S MOTHER, Ebora Alexander, was born far from the violence of South-Central Los Angeles. She grew up in Louisiana, left school in the eighth grade, was married at age 16 and eventually had 11 children. Money was tight, and the family lost its house. She and her husband divorced. But Ebora sent all the kids to parochial schools. The girls didn’t date until they were 18. On Friday nights, the family watched Kermit play football. Then on Saturday mornings Ebora would get everyone up early to clean the house. On Saturday nights, the kids went to confession at St. Columbkille Catholic Church, where Ebora ironed the altar linens and volunteered on bingo nights. The rest of the week, she worked at St. Vincent’s Hospital at 3rd and Alvarado streets, where she prepared salads and special diet trays.
Her children always called her “Madee"--family shorthand for “Mother Dear.” For the last 20 years she had lived in a rented house on West 59th Street, a friendly family street lined with tall palms. In the years following World War II, it had been a good place to raise a family, but recently the neighborhood had gone downhill. Vacant lots were littered with junked cars and discarded sofas. There was so much gunfire that one time Ebora made the family lie on the floor until the police helicopter began circling overhead. Her daughters had been urging her to buy a house somewhere else, but she didn’t want to leave her church parish.
As a result, on Friday, Aug. 31, she was still living on 59th Street. In a back bedroom, her son Neal Alexander, 33, was asleep with one of her grandsons, Ivan Bonner, 13. In a front bedroom her youngest daughter, Dietra, was asleep with two other visiting grandchildren, Damani, 13, and Damon, 8.
As she did every morning, on Aug. 31 Ebora Alexander got up at dawn, laid out her clothes and watered the potted plants on the front porch. It was a hot morning, and she left the door open. She was in the kitchen pouring herself a cup of coffee when suddenly two strangers burst through the screen door and started shooting.
THIRTY BLOCKS TO THE SOUTH,Damon’s younger brother and sister were at home asleep. His mother, Daphine Bonner, was lying in bed watching the sun shining through the blinds.
Just as she was about to get up, her oldest son, Ivan, called on the telephone, talking so fast it was hard to follow the rush of words. “Mama, Mama. Something bad has happened. Some men came in the house and shot Madee, Dietra and Damani. And Mama, he shot Damon.”
DAPHINE BONNERis a pretty, oval-faced woman, open, cheerful and voluble as a mountain spring. Today, as she sits on the couch in the cluttered den of her house in South-Central Los Angeles, her two young children run in and out through the front door.
Of all Ebora Alexander’s children, Daphine Bonner has perhaps adjusted best to the tragedy. When asked about Damon, she claps her hands and throws back her head. “Oh, Damon,” she says, smiling and shaking her head at the memory. “He was a little, itty-bitty kid. Very bright. We called him little man. He looked like he was 5 or 6. He talked like he was 10 or 11. Actually he was 8.”
He was also quite sensitive, apparently having a premonition of the killings. “He suddenly started crying a lot,” says Bonner. “He followed me around the house. One time he sat on a stool and stared at me. It made me nervous. ‘Damon,’ I said. ‘What’s wrong?’
“ ‘Well, get out of here.’ But no sooner than I turned around and there he was back again.
“He started asking to sleep with me at night, something he hadn’t done even when he was very small. He wanted me to read the Bible to him. He would sit there with his chin in his hands and look at me. ‘Heaven sounds like a wonderful place.’
“Once he came in the bedroom and just cried. I told my husband, ‘Damon is scaring the hell out of me. He makes me think I’m dying.’ I was scared. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ”
WHEN IVAN CALLED HER on the morning of the murders, says Bonner, to tell her who had been shot, at first she thought it was a joke and that any instant his voice would dissolve into giggles. But then he got to Damon and something clutched her heart; Ivan would never joke about Damon like that.
Next a neighbor of Ebora Alexander’s came on the line. “Oh, Daphine,” she said. “Get over here quick. Dietra is dead. I know because her eyes are open.”
Bonner hung up the phone and tried to dress, but she was too distraught. She ran from the bedroom to the living room and called her aunt. “Dora, Dora,” she whimpered. “Get over there. I can’t go. I’ve got the babies.”
By this time, Bonner was walking in circles and “babbling” to herself. She knew Dietra was dead, but thinking that the rest of the family might still have a chance, she called Pat Robertson’s 700 Club to ask them to pray for her mother. Finding that the line was busy, she called the Trinity Broadcasting Network. But their line was busy, too. Cursing their uselessness, she slammed down the receiver and called her older sister, Joan Marie Alexander. “Oh, Marie. Oh, Marie. This is really bad.”
Bonner called a girlfriend to come watch her two toddlers, then left to join her family. On the way over she found herself making a succession of increasingly pitiful bargains with the Lord--"Just let them be alive. Let them be on life support. Just let me see them once before they die.”
MARIE ALEXANDER WAS ASLEEP when Daphine Bonner called. All she heard was that something bad had happened and Dietra was dead. She ran out of the house, picked up another sister, Crystal Alexander, and headed for their mother’s. When she came up Broadway to 59th, the street was blocked off. There were people at both ends, yellow crowd-control tape all around the house, and three ambulances--none of which, she noted in terror, were going anywhere.
Everyone was upset and confused. The police had just arrived themselves and didn’t know much more than the family did, which was nothing at all. As the various family members showed up at the house, the police--some of whom had tears in their eyes--took them over to Newton Station.
Marie and Crystal were put in a squad room on chairs facing different directions and told not to talk to each other. When Kermit Alexander arrived, Marie fell to her knees on the floor. He was the first born, an All-American at UCLA and a professional football player for the Rams and the ‘49ers. In times of stress, people automatically turned to him, which was what made it so bad now--when Marie saw the stricken look on his face through a glass partition, she knew there was no hope.
Crystal was a nurse in an intensive-care unit for terminally ill cancer patients. But this agony of not knowing was worse than anything she encountered on the job. She pounded on a desk until a sergeant came in. “What is going on in my mother’s house?” she screamed. “Where is my brother Neal? Why are we being treated like this?”
Marie pleaded with the officer. She tried to explain that no one in the family could have been involved in the killings: “Our family isn’t like this. We don’t do things like this.”
Finally the officer relented. “You have a right to know.”
Everyone except Ivan and Neal was dead. Ivan had saved his life by hiding in a closet. And Neal, after fighting with the killers, had escaped out the back door.
Marie started to hyperventilate. She was too angry to cry, so she pounded on a filing cabinet in frustration and rage.
WITH THE CENTER OF THEIR family literally blown away, the surviving brothers and sisters clung to one another for protection and support. Most of the family stayed at Daphine Bonner’s house, the men in the den downstairs, women and children upstairs, and Marie in a sleeping bag near the front door. No one, she vowed, was going to hurt another child in her family. Neal was so distraught he committed himself to a psychiatric hospital. Kermit punched a hole in his living-room wall. All Crystal remembered later was that it rained that night. Marie felt this terrible, devastating sense of anger and loss. And three years later she still does.
JOAN MARIE (called Marie by her family) is a small, passionate woman who wears her hair pulled back and her opinions out front. Although this sometimes gives her the strident air of a political activist, up close one sees something else--warmth, loss, need and longing for her mother.
“When I think about her sometimes,” she says, “I get this pit in my stomach. She used to call me every day at 7 o’clock, wanting to see how I was doing. I got so used to those calls. Then--nothing. I was still trying to call her number. It was automatic. I knew darn well they had just disconnected the phone. But I was just hoping she would answer and say something to me.”
EBORA AND DIETRA Alexander, Damon Bonner and Damani Garner were buried in Holy Cross Cemetery on Sept. 7, 1984, exactly one week after the murders. Eight hundred people showed up for the funeral, three times as many as the church could seat. Abby Rents loaned furniture free of charge, and friends and relatives prepared food all week. The weather remained hot, and Ebora’s oldest daughter, Barbara Alexander, found herself worrying obsessively over such minor matters as whether the flowers would wilt. The organist played “Amazing Grace.” It took 18 pallbearers to carry the coffins.
Because Ebora’s landlord was anxious to re-rent the house, as soon as the police unsealed it, her children gathered to move out all her belongings. A maintenance company had cleaned up the blood, but the house was hot and stuffy and there were clouds of gnats above the spots where the bodies had lain. The unbearable part was seeing the three holes in the wall where Dietra had sat up in bed. She’d had cerebral palsy as a child, and of all Ebora’s children, she was the smallest and frailest. Surely, thought Marie, there was no cause to have shot her three times.
IN THE WEEKS FOLLOWING the killings, the family was in shock. Nobody went to work. They heard so many wild rumors that they didn’t know what to think. Was someone after them? Was someone in trouble? Was it something that had happened generations ago in Louisiana, and now it was time to settle old accounts?
One relative said he’d heard on the street that Kermit Alexander was in trouble with “the syndicate,” and he urged the family to buy guns. “Kermit,” asked his sisters, “what have you done?”
He didn’t know, said Kermit, who was just as bewildered as anyone. He hadn’t done anything.
To LAPD Detective David Crews, the murders simply didn’t make sense. Nothing was taken. No drugs were found on the premises. Why would the intruders execute two boys asleep in their beds? Or, for that matter, why were they so brutal with Ebora, shooting her three times in the skull with .30-caliber slugs?
Crews went door to door interviewing neighbors. He spent an entire week driving the streets of South-Central L.A. looking for the getaway van. He began researching every .30-caliber weapon that had ever been used in a crime. But nothing turned up, and the the investigation was almost at a standstill when, on Sept. 27, narcotics officers raided a Rolling 60s drug operation on 10th Avenue at 63rd. Before they were finished, they arrested a 17-year-old gang member, James Kennedy, with a .30-caliber M-1 carbine.
THE OFFICERS OF THE LAPD’s South Bureau CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit were not surprised to find the Rolling 60s carrying high-powered weapons. They are, police say, perhaps the most violent black gang in the city, controlling everything from Western Avenue west to Fox Hills Mall, from Slauson south to Florence. When the gang formed in the early ‘70s, gang members (known as homeboys) initially fought only over turf--who got to walk on what street, who controlled what park, who held down what youth-authority camp. But in recent years, say police, the gang has moved into narcotics trafficking, primarily rock cocaine, or crack--with fatal consequences for South-Central L.A.
“Very few gang members have any ego control in the first place,” says Michael Genelin of the district attorney’s Hard-core Gang Division. And once on crack, they become “hostile and paranoid.” You ask a gang member why he killed someone in a robbery, agrees CRASH’s Lt. Willie Pannell, and he’ll say, “He was slow in handing over the money.”
Because the profits from crack sales are so huge--police have gone into rock houses and found $100,000 in grocery bags, says Pannell--gang members don’t bother with mere “Saturday night specials” anymore. Now it’s .357 magnums, M-16 rifles and Uzi submachine guns. It used to be that gang members would get off one or two shots at a drive-by shooting. But now, says Pannell, “it’s not unheard of to pick up 50, 60 or 70" spent shells.
Some of these gang members are so immature, says Donald Bakeer, a Manual Arts High School teacher who works with gangs, they can’t tell reality from TV. They shoot someone and then rush home to catch the coverage on the nightly news. They think if they switch channels, he’ll be alive again. And if a homeboy gets caught, says Bakeer, they’ll cheer him as if he were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “That’s my man. Rolling 60s Crips Killer. OG to the max"--OG being Original Gangster, someone in his early 20s who has now been in a gang half a dozen years or more.
OGs are the kind of hard-core gang members who live and breathe the gang. They also do most of the shooting and drug dealing. It isn’t any great trick for the police to catch these guys, says Genelin. They go around the neighborhood bragging about their deeds themselves.
And this in fact is the source of the gang’s appeal. You can be some skinny kid with a dirty T-shirt and holes in your sneakers, but if you get into a gang like the Rolling 60s, says Bakeer, “it’s like instant success.” You’re not just some kid on a street corner anymore. Now you’re a homeboy. And if you go down with your Uzi blazing, hey, that’s life. That’s the way things are.
Not all gang members are hard-core. And most only stay in the gang a year or two. But the ones who do stay inexorably drift into violence and drugs. It gets so bad that some junior high school gang members carry pocket pagers in school. They’ll be in class, the beeper goes off, and they excuse themselves and go make a sale. If they get caught and sent to California Youth Authority, it’s “no big deal,” says Anthony Massengale, field service director for the Community Youth Gang Services Project. All it means is they keep regular hours and play a lot of basketball. When they get out, the next day they’re back on the street dealing drugs again.
The problem, say police, is that the people who sell drugs are often the same ones who use them. That and Old English 800 beer in the 40-ounce bottle. The truth is, says Bakeer, a lot of the homeboys are alcoholics. This is also one reason there’s so much shooting. Someone will get the bright idea to pass off macadamia nuts as rock cocaine, says Lt. Pannell, and the next thing you know his customers are looking for him with an Uzi. That’s why it’s so important, if you’re dealing drugs yourself, to have backup firepower, which was why James Kennedy was toting an M-1 carbine the day the narcotics detail raided the projects on 10th Avenue.
Kennedy had only been a Rolling 60s (named for the rolling succession of streets as one drives south) for three months, and he wasn’t about to let anyone charge him with murder. “Hey, wait a minute,” he told the cops. The gun belonged to Tiequon Cox, known in the Rolling 60s as Little Fee.
Remembering that the Alexanders had been killed with a .30-caliber carbine, a narcotics officer picked up the phone and called Detective Crews.
DAVID CREWS looks like a smaller, calmer, chain-smoking version of Alex Karras. The difference is that Crews’ graying hair is perfectly cut and layered, and his tailored three-piece suit hangs without a wrinkle.
He’d never heard the name Tiequon Cox before, he says, but when he ran a check, he discovered two things. Cox was already in custody--three weeks earlier he’d been stopped on suspicion of cocaine activity while driving his Cadillac down 10th Avenue, and when the officer searched the car, he had found a loaded gun.
The second thing Crews discovered was that Cox’s fingerprints matched a palm print found on a red metal foot locker in Dietra Alexander’s bedroom.
Crews was jubilant. He hurried over to County Jail and re-arrested Cox in his cell, this time on four counts of murder.
“You’re crazy,” said Cox. “I didn’t kill anyone.”
“Fine,” said Crews, who had spent too many years as a cop to be offended by alibis. “Talk to you later.”
AT FIRST GLANCE, COX’S background, as it was introduced in court, sounds like the kind that social workers know by heart. His mother is an alcoholic and a convicted bank robber. He saw his father only half a dozen times while he was growing up. The difference is that Cox, along with his brother and sister, was raised by his great-grandmother, a former actress who owned seven houses and, according to the district attorney’s investigation, is practically a millionaire. As court testimony shows, Cox hardly had a deprived childhood. He had a bicycle and roller skates. There was a $10,000 T-bill in his college fund. He played in Little League and belonged to the Boy Scouts. He was a trophy-winning athlete in basketball, football, baseball and swimming.
When he was 13 he ran away, complaining that his great-grandmother restricted him to the backyard. Then in the eighth grade, he started wearing gang colors. According to testimony introduced at his trial, he began taking other kids’ bicycles. He beat up one neighborhood kid with a broomstick for 60 cents. He knocked another to the ground for a dime. Shortly before his 15th birthday, he forced a woman out of her car, took the car (with her dog in the back seat) and led the cops on a 25-mile high-speed chase until he finally crashed.
The judge gave him 2 1/2 years in the CYA. When he was released in March of 1984, he moved into a room in the rear of his great-grandmother’s house. Six months later, he was in jail again, this time on four counts of murder. He was just 18.
SHORTLY AFTER COX’S ARRAIGNMENT on Oct. 25, 1984, the police got another lucky break. A young woman named Linda Lewis took a sheriff ‘s deputy aside to say that on the evening of Tiequon Cox’s arraignment, a Rolling 60s homeboy named Horace Burns--nicknamed Horse--came to her door (she lived across the street from James Kennedy) and asked if he could watch the 11 o’clock news. Horse, she would testify, was drunk. And to him the murders were one big joke. “I was there,” Horse boasted--but unlike Fee, he hadn’t left his prints in the house.
Later, on the 10th Street project steps, Lewis’ longtime friend, Cassandra Haynes, heard Burns elaborating on the same story. Burns was thrilled to have had a part in such a historic event. As he told the story, which Haynes later related in court, they’d robbed a couple of dopers, who in retaliation had shot up one of their houses. They in turn re-retaliated. He demonstrated how Cox had supposedly kicked in the Alexander’s front door (actually the door had been open). He said that Cox went really crazy, that he didn’t stop shooting till the gun was empty. The only hitch was, they hit the wrong house.
Linda Lewis was aghast. But what about the two little boys who got shot?
“It was just something that happened,” said Burns.
Police arrested Burns without incident. When they drove up to his house, he was standing in the picture window staring out at the street.
COX AND BURNS WERE PROSECUTED by Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling Norris, a straightforward, no-nonsense lawyer with a red face, white hair and a voice made hoarse by heartfelt conviction: In his 18th-floor office in the criminal courts building, there is an eight-foot American flag nailed to the wall and photographs of every defendant on Death Row; a flyer on his office door reads, “Free the Nightstalker. Retain Rose Bird.”
Although he’d had nearly 20 years experience as a DA and is the deputy in charge of special trials--the especially notorious or important cases--he was unprepared, he says, for the feelings of terror and intimidation that Cox and Burns inspired at the preliminary hearing. They may have been handcuffed to their chairs, but they had such an insolent, defiant manner, it seemed that given half a chance they’d kill everyone in court.
BLACK STREET GANGS ARE NOT tightly organized hierarchical pyramids like the Mafia, with one man in control. Gang members talked freely on the street. Rumors were rampant in the community. And in February of 1985, an anonymous caller gave them the names of two women who, the caller said, had been in the getaway van.
The two women, Ida Moore and Delisa Brown, readily admitted to having been there, though they said they’d known nothing of the murder plans. They named another homeboy who had been in the van--Darren Charles Williams, or C-Dub.
Williams was 24, slow-talking and slow-moving. Normally a heavyset and thick-thighed bear of a man, in the months before the murder he’d used so much cocaine that he’d become thin and paranoid.
After arresting Williams, Crews sat him down in front of a tape recorder and offered him one chance to do himself some good before his arraignment on four counts of murder.
Williams’ story, the tape of which was played at his trial, was anything but consistent. He didn’t know about the murders. He wasn’t there. At the time they went down he was in jail on traffic warrants. He might have been in the van, but he’d been smoking cocaine with Moore and Brown, and he “was going through a lot of changes”; he’d only gone along for the ride. He never even went into the Alexander house. He stopped at the front porch. He did go into the house, but he ran right out again when Little Fee fired the first shot.
Then he said the first thing about the whole Alexander tragedy that made sense to Crews: There was this girl who was crippled after being “shot in somebody’s club.” She had sued the owner and the owner was paying Cox and Burns "$50,000 to $60,000 . . . to get rid of her.” He told Crews the club owner’s name, the club’s location and what Burns and Cox planned to do with the money--"buy me a house, a car” and “a pound of dope.” But then they got to 59th Street, and they “went in the wrong house.”
IDA MOORE AND Delisa Brown weren’t charged with any crimes. But their testimony, along with Williams’ semi-confession and the accounts of the other witnesses, allowed Norris to piece together a plausible story to present to the jury.
Around 5:30 on the morning of Aug. 31, trial records showed, Cox, Burns and Williams showed up at Ida Moore’s house, asking to use her 1975 Chevy van to go see a woman who, Williams said, owed him money. Moore refused to loan her van to Williams but said she would drive him over herself if he’d buy the gas. Since neither Cox, Burns nor Williams had any money, Moore stopped and bought the gas herself. Brown came along for the ride.
As the van came down West 59th Street shortly after 7:30 a.m., Williams announced, “There it is.” He told Moore to park four or five houses down the street and to keep the engine running. Burns waited in the van with the women while Williams and Cox got out and walked back toward the house. Cox carried a carbine wrapped in a jacket. Williams had a pistol in his waistband. After two or three minutes, Williams came running down the street and jumped in the van. He looked panicky and told Moore, “Let’s go.”
“Aren’t you going to wait for your friend?” asked Brown. Then she saw Cox walking calmly down the street with a carbine in his hand. “Wait a minute,” she said, “there he is now.”
Cox jumped in the van, shut the door and said, “Get out of here. I just blew the bitch’s head off.”
Everyone was talking at the same time. Moore sped down 59th, turned right on Main and followed Williams’ directions to a Vermont Avenue club, where, according to Williams’ confession, they were to pick up the hit money.
Later that afternoon Cox walked into a car dealership on Figueroa Street and bought a yellow 1975 Cadillac convertible for $3,000 cash. The following day, Williams shelled out $1,500 as a down payment on a new Datsun 280Z for his estranged wife.
BURNS’ ATTORNEYS HAD REASON to feel confident when his case went to trial. Burns was denying Lewis’ and Haynes’ accounts, and all the DA could really prove was that Burns was in the van outside the Alexander house but not that he knew about the murder plot or had any part in the killings. Privately, Crews agreed, figuring the chances of a conviction were no better than 50%.
As a result, it dumbfounded Burns’ attorneys when, halfway through the trial, Burns tried to slip Cox a highly self-incriminating eight-page letter, which was seized by a sheriff ‘s deputy who thought it was contraband. The letter was a remarkable combination of street cunning, naivete and misspelled words, not all of which were unconscious: Burns couldn’t bring himself to spell because with a “b,” because Bs stand for Bloods, the Crips’ mortal enemies. So he spelled it cecause instead.
In his letter, portions of which the DA enlarged and exhibited in court, Burns argued to Cox that it didn’t make sense to let the DA send all three of them to prison when one of them could go free and be in a position to help the other two. Cox, he pointed out, didn’t have a chance since his prints had been found on the trunk in Dietra’s room. Williams didn’t deserve to go free since he snitched to the DA. That left Burns. Since the evidence against him was weakest of all, if Cox would testify that Burns hadn’t been in the van, the DA would have to let him go. Then Burns could sue the city for all the “lies” the DA said about him and give half the money to Cox’s younger brother and sister. In the meantime, he would make sure the families of the witnesses suffered for all the “lies” they told on Little Fee in court “and that’s on mom’s” (that is, “on mom’s honor,” a near-sacred gang oath). He ended with the consoling thought: “You wont get the gas Cecause you did not plan it. You was doing what you were order.”
Burns now had to take the stand to try to explain the note. For Norris, it was like shooting Rolling 60s in a barrel.
Norris : Now, your story, basically, Mr. Burns, so I understand it, is that you were just there. You didn’t know what was going to happen. You just had gone out for an early-morning ride. Right?
Burns : Yes, sir.
After brief deliberation, a jury found Burns guilty of murder in the first degree and, on the jury’s recommendation, the judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
IMPANELING A JURY FOR THE Cox trial took eight weeks (the actual trial went off in four days). The problem, as is true in all such murder cases, was the time it took to seat a “death qualified” jury--one composed of people who would neither vote for nor against the death penalty in every situation. Surprisingly, on one issue, both Norris and Cox’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Edward (Ned) Cook, were fully agreed. Both wanted a black jury--Cook because he felt that blacks, because of their experience with discrimination, tended to be more compassionate, and Norris because he felt that blacks suffered more from drugs and crime and, as a result, were more inclined to take a firm stand.
COX COULD NOT HAVE HAD a more sympathetic attorney than Ned Cook. He’s 48, 6 feet, 4 1/2 inches tall, deferential and still a bit hurt by what he saw as the tendency of the Alexander family to regard him as the enemy. “I guess I was, but I was only doing my job. Frequently after a trial is over, you become friends with everyone. And I was kind of hoping it could happen here.” But Marie Alexander wouldn’t talk to him. (“I was too mad,” she says.)
WITH COX as a client, Cook faced an uphill battle. Cox smoldered in the courtroom. He threatened a bailiff who escorted his mother out of the courtroom, refused halfway through the trial to wear shackles anymore (the judge agreed on the condition that Cox promise not to make trouble) and on three occasions corrected the judge for mispronouncing his name--it was TI-kwon, not TEE-kwon. To him, the trial seemed to be some sort of game, and he acted as if it was the Alexanders who had done something to him and not the other way around.
The evidence against Cox was so strong--"the palm print had us in a hole,” says Cook--that Cook didn’t even try to put on a defense. Instead, he decided to spend his energy (and the jury’s limited supply of sympathy) in trying to save Cox’s life.
His strategy was to put the jury “into Cox’s head. Paint a sympathetic portrait; show why he had become what he had become.”
The problem was, Cox wouldn’t talk about his personal life. It was a matter of personal pride. No matter what the consequences, he wasn’t about to allow anyone to grovel on his behalf.
BY THE END OF THE TRIAL, neither family could stand the tension. One of Cox’s relatives shouted “Lies!” during the prosecution argument. Ebora Alexander’s old friend, Sadie Rogers, wrung her hands so nervously that nearby jurors kept glancing over. When Cook’s co-counsel began arguing that there wasn’t any proof that Cox was the triggerman, Marie Alexander flew out of her seat: “He was the shooter, damn it! I don’t know why you’re saying what you’re saying. You know he did it.”
In his final argument, Ned Cook pointed out to the jury that while it was true that Cox in his youth had beaten up other boys for small change, this was hardly a reason to kill him. “If I had grown up under the circumstances that Tiequon Cox grew up under, who knows what I might have become. You are judging another human being and, as we say, there but for the grace of God go I. He never had a chance, and all we are asking for is to let him have the rest of his life in prison. Is that asking too much?”
Besides, asked Cook, directly challenging the jury, “who gave you the power of life or death? Consider the process by which you came to be on this jury in the first place. You are on the jury registration list. You are drawn by lot to come into this courtroom. Through a long process, you are the 12 people chosen. Does this qualify you to decide who’s going to live or die? Does this make you God?”
In response, Norris ridiculed the notion that people such as Cox weren’t responsible for their crimes. “The defense is saying, ‘Don’t give anybody the death penalty. What right do we have to make those kind of judgments?’ That has got to be the pit of hypocrisy. Cox goes in and executes four people. And then defense counsel says, ‘What right do we have?’ I say, we have every right. And I say the proper decision in this case is death.”
The jury of 10 blacks and two whites agreed with him. When they brought in the death verdict, Sadie Rogers threw back her arms and shouted, “Thank you, Jesus!” Her heart was pounding so hard she had to take a pill. The judge ordered her to leave but her legs wouldn’t work. Kermit and the bailiff had to carry her out.
Last month, Darren Williams was sentenced to die as well.
AS VICTIMS’ ASSISTANCE coordinator for the city attorney’s office, Norma Johnson works with families of homicide victims, helping to defray funeral costs and arranging for psychiatric counseling. When she first took on the Alexander case, she began to wonder if she hadn’t made the worst mistake of her life. “I had never seen four caskets lined up in a church before. I just fell apart.”
When Cox and Williams were first tried, says Johnson, it didn’t seem likely that they would ever be executed. “But now,” she says, “we’ve got a new Supreme Court.” Barring unforeseen developments, around 1990 Williams and Cox will get the gas chamber, which for Johnson is none too soon. “They treated the whole community like a bunch of damn patsies.” All over South-Central Los Angeles, she continued, there are women like Ebora Alexander, women who raise the members of their families to be productive citizens. They are more than just somebody’s mother--they’re a “legacy to be cherished in the black community.” The hoodlums who killed her should pay with their lives.
“Cox was not an underprivileged kid. He chose the life he had.” But even if life did deal him a bad hand, that doesn’t give him the right to destroy a family. Cox was so arrogant, says Johnson, that he walked in there, killed four people and walked out again in broad daylight. “They can’t drop the pellets fast enough. He’s too dangerous to live.”