After serving almost two years of a 38-year prison sentence, a former Lutheran minister from Gardena who was convicted of sexually molesting a developmentally disabled 16-year-old parishioner was ordered freed Wednesday after a judge ruled that his trial attorney had not presented a competent defense.
Arleigh Eugene Cox, 62, who was pastor of St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church for 13 years until his resignation in 1991 after his arrest on charges of molesting the girl, was to have been released from custody late Wednesday night.
Cox was at Wednesday’s hearing and seemed stunned when Cooper ruled that his original defense attorney had failed to pursue key evidence that might have altered the outcome of his trial. Rising unsteadily to his feet after the ruling was announced, Cox told his new attorney, Carl A. Capozzola, “God Bless You.”
Torrance Superior Court Judge Candace Cooper said that Cox would remain free on $30,000 bail pending retrial.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrew McMullen said he was disappointed with Cooper’s ruling. The district attorney’s office has not decided whether to appeal the judge’s ruling, he said.
Cox’s wife, Carol, cried out, “Oh God in heaven, thank you!” as the judge announced her decision.
“I’m sad that he had to be put through this,” Carol Cox said later as she cried and hugged a half dozen friends who attended the court hearing. “But I always knew that he would be released.”
She added that Cox “isn’t bitter. He has brought many people to the Lord” during his stay in Calipatria State Prison near El Centro.
Carol Cox said her once-portly husband, who suffers from a heart condition, lost 70 pounds during his incarceration.
Capozzola said he and his client “will welcome a new trial to vindicate Mr. Cox.” Capozzola dismissed the girl’s accusations as “fantasies” and said Cox’s conviction was “one of the greatest injustices I’ve ever seen.”
Cox was arrested in January, 1991, after a then 16-year-old Torrance girl who belonged to his 45-member church told Gardena police that Cox had sex with her.
At Cox’s trial, the girl testified that in 1989 she began finding notes almost every day in a cookie tin in her bedroom that told her God wanted her to have sex with “P.C.,” Cox’s nickname at the church. Trial testimony indicated that Cox, a longtime family friend, had access to the girl’s home.
Later, the notes became more threatening, the girl testified. Eventually, she said, Cox forced her to have sex with him and he also took photos of her nude.
Cox, the father of three grown children, testified that he had had a nine-year affair with the girl’s mother, who also attended Cox’s church. But Cox vehemently denied having sex with the young girl.
None of the girl’s notes were introduced during the trial; she testified that she had thrown them away.
But the girl’s diaries, which allegedly contained obscene entries written by Cox, were used as key evidence against him.
Cox’s attorney in the trial, Dean Hall, never had the diary entries examined by a defense handwriting expert.
The jury convicted Cox of forcible rape and other charges after three days of deliberations. He was given the maximum sentence.
Cox hired Capozzola to appeal the conviction. Capozzola also filed a writ of habeas corpus asking the court to reconsider Cox’s detention. He argued that, among other things, Cox had been denied competent counsel. A state appellate court ordered hearings in Torrance Superior Court on the writ.
During the hearings before Cooper, Capozzola introduced an affidavit from a handwriting expert stating that Cox did not write the obscene entries in the girl’s diaries. Cooper said Wednesday that Hall, the original defense attorney, “should have at least made a passing effort to investigate (the handwriting) further.” Cooper ruled that “Mr. Hall’s effort fell below the required standard of competence for an attorney.”
Hall was unavailable for comment.