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Friend Tells of Cosby Killing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The person closest to being an eyewitness in the death of entertainer Bill Cosby’s son shocked the court Tuesday with testimony that indicated the killer was someone other than the 19-year-old Ukrainian immigrant who has been charged with his murder.

In what appears to be a setback for the prosecution, Stephanie Crane, the companion of Ennis Cosby on the night he was killed, conceded that she failed to pick defendant Mikail Markhasev out of a police lineup last year. Instead, she selected another man as most resembling the person who accosted her and killed Cosby on Jan. 16, 1997.

Talking calmly and patiently through 2 1/2 hours of testimony, the prosecution witness said that in looking at a lineup of men, which included Markhasev, she picked a shorter man that looked most like the man who suddenly appeared at her car window while she waited for Cosby to change a tire.

Crane said the man she saw at the scene was about 5-foot-10, “bumbling” and unsure of himself and fit the description of a man who started crying in the lineup.

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In contrast, the man in the lineup who turned out to be Markhasev was tall and “macho,” she said.

The testimony appears to boost the defense’s assertion that someone else killed Cosby, the son of entertainer Bill Cosby.

In a strong cross-examination of Crane, Deputy Alternate Public Defender Hank Hall elicited additional physical characteristics of the killer from Crane, such as height and weight, that he says fit the description of Eli Zakaria.

Zakaria, another key prosecution witness, was with Markhasev the night of the killing.

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Hall also cast doubt on Crane’s description of the killer as “pale,” which would fit Markhasev, by pointing out that she once told detectives that the flashing lights from Cosby’s car may have made the killer appear “pale and yellowish.”

Although it has long been known that Crane was unable to pick Markhasev out of a lineup, the fact that she came close to identifying someone else was a boost for the the 19-year-old defendant, who stands to spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.

Crane’s account of the events are highly important in the case--not because of her ability to identify the killer--but because she is the only person other than Cosby and the attacker who saw what happened on that cold, dark night on Skirball Center Drive where he stopped to change a flat tire.

Moreover, unlike other witnesses who are expected to testify against Markhasev, Crane’s credibility is the least vulnerable. The others have long criminal records and pending charges, which Hall will use to try to discount the validity of their testimony.

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“It was damaging, but not fatal,” said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School, who has been monitoring the case this week.

“It’s one of the strongest things the defense has had in its favor,” she said.

Despite the damage from Crane’s testimony, Deputy Dist. Atty. Anne Ingalls regained some ground Tuesday by directly linking Markhasev to the murder weapon using a hair fiber. The hair, which came from a knit cap that was found covering the murder weapon in a wooded area about five miles away, matched a hair sample taken from Markhasev, said Susan Brockbank, a criminalist with the Los Angeles Police Department.

The cap and gun were recovered by police about two months after Cosby was shot. The killing happened while Cosby attempted to changed a flat tire. The prosecution says that while he worked, Markhasev and two companions--Zakaria, 24, and his girlfriend, Sara Ann Peters, 22, both of Orange County--had stopped about 450 feet away at a bank of phones near a lighted park-and-ride lot to call a drug connection.

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While Zakaria made the call, Markhasev killed Cosby during a failed robbery attempt, the prosecution says.

Although Crane was at the scene, she did not actually see the shooting. Nevertheless, her testimony Tuesday provided the most chilling account of what happened.

As the red-haired witness walked into court, Markhasev turned around in his seat at the defense table and watched her as she walked down the aisle to the witness chair. Dressed in a dark skirt and jacket, she talked coolly and without emotion, occasionally glancing at Markhasev as she testified.

Crane told how she had met Cosby, who was on a break from his doctoral studies at Columbia University Teachers College in New York, about a week earlier at a party of a lawyer friend.

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Cosby was on the San Diego Freeway, en route from his parents Pacific Palisades home to visit her in Sherman Oaks, when the tire went flat near Skirball Center Drive.

Crane drove out to meet him after he called to explain his predicament. While sitting in the car with the motor and heater running and watching Cosby change the tire in the glow of her headlights, a man wearing a light-colored knit hat appeared at the window.

“Open the door or I’ll kill you,” he told her, Crane said.

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Frightened, she sped away, but only for about 50 feet. She then stopped and turned around, hoping her actions would scare the intruder away, she said.

“I didn’t see Ennis, and I started screaming, ‘Ennis, Ennis!” Crane recalled. At that moment she saw a man running toward a parked car not far way.

“Then I looked down and saw Ennis lying on the ground,” she said.

She called 911 with a car phone, and police arrived.

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She described the man to police as “very pale, very thin” with “pointy features,” including a “very pointed nose.” She described his complexion as “flawless” and said he was wearing a wool hat.

Police drew a composite from that description.

Later when police showed her a series of six pictures, not including Markhasev, she picked one who she said had features similar to Markhasev’s.

In mid-March, after police arrested Markhasev and put him in a lineup with five other men--all wearing knit hats--Crane examined the men closely, asking they be made to walk and say “get out of the car or I’ll kill you.”

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She said she was looking for a man who not only fit the description of the composite, but who also seemed “bumbling” and unsure of himself because that was how the killer appeared to her during the few seconds of her encounter.

In the lineup, Crane identified a man who was the shortest of the six, partly because he seemed frightened, she said.

“He had similar features and was very shook up and crying,” she said.

On cross-examination, Hall found additional weaknesses in her descriptions of the man who accosted her on Skirball Center Drive.

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When Crane told the jury that the suspect was about 18 to 25 years old, which would fit Markhasev’s age, Hall produced a transcript of an interview with police showing she told police he was 25 to 32, closer to the age of Zakaria.


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