He Tries to Prove There’s a Little Good in Everyone : Prober’s Job Is to Keep Killers Off Death Row
Former Los Angeles Police Detective Richard H. Ford could have been on Death Row by now for the contract murder of a Northridge businessman. But a jury recently deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of sparing his life, and prosecutors decided not to pursue the case further.
For Ford, what may well have made the difference between life behind bars and death in the gas chamber was a penalty phase trial in which three dozen witnesses recounted his personal history in painfully moving detail. The witnesses were presented to the jury by defense counsels Richard P. Lasting and Rickard Santwier.
But there was another figure operating behind the scenes to stitch together Ford’s biography: Casey Cohen, a colorful former probation officer who left government service more than a decade ago after winning the Irish Sweepstakes.
Cohen, who is not a lawyer, has developed an unusual career as the person the leading private defense attorneys in Los Angeles County turn to for the preparation of their penalty phase trials, the proceedings that occur after a jury has found a defendant guilty of murder with special circumstances.
Part social worker, part psychiatrist, part detective and part adventurer, Cohen, who usually dresses in T-shirts and jeans, has assisted in no fewer than 53 capital cases, far more than any individual lawyer in the state.
The list reads like a Who’s Who of capital crimes: Franklin Freeman Jr., a defendant in the 1980 triple murder at a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard; Hau Cheong (Peter) Chan for the 1984 murder of a Los Angeles police officer during the robbery of a Chinatown jewelry store; Bill Bradford for the 1984 murder of two young would-be models in West Los Angeles, and Ruben A. Moss in the 1985 revenge slaying of a police officer in Canoga Park.
His work begins in the early stages of a case, and sometimes the information he gleans, taking notes on his laptop computer, is used in the portion of the trial in which the defendant’s guilt is considered.
Digging Into Lives
A tall, bearded man with penetrating, brown eyes, Cohen, 52, sees himself as an archeologist who sifts through the detritus of a shattered life to give shape and meaning to the defendant’s past. It is his job to locate and interview the relatives, the teachers, the commanding officers--anyone who can show the jury that the crimes alone, horrendous though they might be, do not tell the complete story.
Much of what he unearths is tragic. “I’ve had cases where I went home and put a pillow over my head because I didn’t want to believe that this much seeming badness had come to a person,” Cohen says.
In the Ford case, jurors learned from the prosecution during the penalty phase that the defendant had previously been convicted of attempted murder and robbery. They heard a tape-recording laced with obscenities in which he coldly discussed his plans to torture and kill an exotic dancer.
But when it was the defense’s turn, in Cohen’s most elaborate penalty phase presentation to date, jurors were bombarded with numerous possible reasons to reject the death penalty. They could show mercy because of the wretched circumstances of Ford’s upbringing, his traumatic experiences in Vietnam or his crackup after his wife was raped and tortured.
If these personal elements did not sway them, they might be affected by Ford’s exemplary record in the Army and the Police Department. Or by the department’s inadequate response after Ford repeatedly sought help, telling a police psychologist a year before his crime spree began that he “might blow somebody away.”
Or jurors might come to see that Ford could still make a positive contribution from inside San Quentin, that he was a model inmate who had helped others in jail cope with their despair, that family members, including a teen-age daughter, still loved and valued him.
Cohen, an unabashed foe of the death penalty, believes that even the staunchest proponents of capital punishment want to make sure it is carried out with the proper safeguards.
“No one that I know of--not even the most conservative people--want to scrap everything and just have summary executions on the street,” said Cohen, whose $50-an-hour fee is nearly always paid by the county because most defendants in capital cases eventually declare indigence.
In Cohen’s view, what he does is “help provide information that is required by law. . . . It’s not a tricky invention of the defense bar.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Harvey Giss, prosecutor in the Bob’s Big Boy case, finds nothing wrong with the service Cohen performs. “There’s so much at stake, I wouldn’t fault anybody for using any means that might be successful,” Giss said.
Under the law, the jury must be informed of “mitigating factors” before choosing between the death penalty and life in prison without parole. It is up to the panel how to treat this information, but failure to offer it can result in a reversal.
As Ford’s lawyer, Lasting, put it: “Ultimately, (a juror) might say, ‘I don’t care.’ But (the juror) should never say, ‘I didn’t know.’ ”
Often, however, such testimony is exceedingly hard to come by, defense attorneys say. Not infrequently, hostile family members have to be reconciled before the interviewing can start.
In one rape-murder case, the defendant and his mother had not spoken in years, according to defense attorney Gigi Gordon. The mother had turned in her son and thought he hated her for betraying him, although, actually, he had made no effort to hide from police. She had testified in the guilt phase so the jury was aware of her existence.
Praised for Ability
“I could not have a penalty phase where my client’s mother was not going to testify,” Gordon said. “It was Casey who enabled her to testify, to say the good things about her son and get over the fact that she had turned him in.”
Cohen wins praise from defense attorneys for his ability to extract information from the most recalcitrant witnesses and for his success in persuading them to risk humiliation, embarrassment or worse by testifying for the defense.
Lawyers describe him as “non-judgmental,” “sensitive” and “caring”--adjectives they do not customarily apply to one another.
“He can get virtually anyone to talk to him,” attorney Charles L. Lindner said. “He’s the kind of guy you could meet in a bar and end up telling your life story to.”
Lasting credits Cohen with coaxing reluctant fellow police officers into taking the stand in the Ford case.
Leslie H. Abramson, who represented Chan in the Chinatown murder case, was impressed with Cohen’s interaction with her client’s Vietnamese relatives.
“When I talked to them, I got virtually nothing,” Abramson said. “When he sat down with them, all this stuff came out.”
Sometimes, by Cohen’s own admission, his approach to potential witnesses is anything but subtle. Once, when a defendant’s relative refused to let him into her house, he shouted through a screen door: “When they bring the casket out of San Quentin, there will be two kinds of people in this family--those who helped and those who didn’t.”
Moments later, he recalled, the relative agreed to talk.
In many ways, Cohen’s own life has been as extraordinary as some of those he probes into.
Brought up in St. Louis and Los Angeles by his mother, who was divorced, Cohen--originally given the first name Kaddish, as in the Hebrew prayer for the dead--left school in the 10th grade and joined the Navy.
While serving on a destroyer, he once found himself 3 miles downwind from an atomic bomb explosion--an incident he suspects may be responsible for the two cancer operations he has undergone in recent years.
After leaving the Navy, Cohen moved to Australia and married, returning to California a year later to earn a degree at Cal State Los Angeles. The marriage produced two sons but ended in divorce.
Back in Los Angeles, a recruitment poster for the Probation Department caught his eye. “I had had a chaotic childhood,” he said, explaining the job’s appeal. “I had identification with people who get into trouble.”
As a probation officer, he worked with adult and juvenile offenders, trying to help redirect their lives by finding them jobs or encouraging them to return to school.
But by the late 1970s, the public attitude on crime was hardening. Funding for client services was evaporating, and punishment, not rehabilitation, was the operative word.
After 12 years in the department, Cohen came into a sudden windfall when his mother put his name on a winning $250,000 Irish Sweepstakes ticket. He set up his own business in 1978 writing private pre-sentence reports to supplement the documents submitted to judges by overworked probation officers.
He took on his first capital case after the defendant successfully appealed a death sentence on the grounds that no penalty phase had been presented.
Penalty phase consultation is so unusual that Sheila Balkan, a Santa Monica criminologist and sociologist, is believed to be the only other person in the county who does it. Balkan, who has helped prepare half a dozen capital cases, regards Cohen as her “mentor.”
Hires Some Help
These days, Cohen spends about half his time on pre-sentencing reports for non-capital cases. Last year, he hired an assistant to help him with the increasing workload.
Cohen, who earns about $50,000 a year, lives and works out of an austere studio apartment in Santa Monica with a commanding ocean view.
An avid reader with wide-ranging interests--”philosophy, history, current events, psychology, sociology and anthropology”--he gives away books once he has read them and says he owns only one suit. No ascetic, however, he is fond of movies, Italian food and exercising his talents as a raconteur.
Among attorneys, Cohen has a reputation for being able to find redeeming qualities in just about anyone, even the surliest, most brutal defendant. And indeed, his eyes take on a sorrowful look when he describes some of the lives he has probed.
Has he ever had to deal with a defendant that he personally could not stand?
“There are some people who are more difficult to work with,” he said carefully. “But if you want to be in this business, you have to deal with difficult people. You take them as you get them.”
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