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How a killing in prison set Reggie Cole on a path to freedom

Reggie Cole in his hotel room earlier this month.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Reggie Cole struck a pose on the courthouse steps, flexing his biceps in a brand-new silver suit.

“Ladies and gentlemen, today is my first day of freedom,” he shouted on that day in 2010. “I feel good, and I’m just saying — damn, I look good!”

He danced down the steps, and giggles overtook him as he nearly fell.

“I’m telling you, boy, it feels good to be free,” he said with a grin toward a home video camera capturing the moment. “I’m out!”

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Fifteen years earlier, Cole had been sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a man outside of a South L.A. brothel.

Cole had always said he was no killer -- until the day in prison he sank a 6-inch shiv into the neck of a menacing inmate called Devil.

Bizarrely, that killing set Cole on a path to freedom. But his elation on the courthouse steps would soon give way to an angry resolve to clear his name.

The ongoing battle would present two conflicting portraits of Cole: One as an unrepentant murderer who gamed the system to win his freedom, the other as an innocent man the state of California turned into a killer.

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Around midnight on March 28, 1994, LAPD homicide detectives arrived at an apartment building on the corner of 49th and Figueroa streets. The two-story building was a brothel, and John Jones, a pimp who ran prostitutes from apartments on the first floor, lorded over the property from upstairs.

Hours earlier, a man named Felipe Gonzales Angeles had walked up to the locked door and asked to see a prostitute he knew named Melinda. The man standing guard said Melinda was busy, and as Angeles returned to his car, he was accosted by three gunmen and shot to death.

Police questioned Jones, who told them he saw the faces of three men as they shot up at him from below while they fled.

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Detectives had little to go on, but weeks later a tip led them to Cole.

He had grown up a few miles to the south, one of five children who shared a two-bedroom apartment with their mother and stepfather. As a child, he idolized his older brother, Kenny, who was in the local gang and protected the young Reggie from neighborhood bullies.

Kenny was a few blocks from home one night when he was shot to death at the age of 15. Reggie was 10. When Kenny died, his younger brother inherited his friends -- and his enemies. He also took on his brother’s gang name, Gumby. He dropped out of Manual Arts High School in the 11th grade and spent the next few years floating around, partying and selling drugs.

By 1994, Cole, now 19, was selling crack at the motels along the Figueroa Corridor, a pistol tucked into his jeans. Sometimes he ran into his boyhood friend Obie Anthony, a fellow member of the Nine Deuce Hoover Crips who also sold drugs there.

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The two were in jail when they learned they had been charged with murdering Angeles.

At the trial, they insisted they were innocent, and their defense attorneys argued that they were home hung over after drinking heavily the night before at a friend’s birthday party. No physical evidence connected the pair to the crime.

The prosecution’s case relied almost entirely on eyewitnesses who identified them as the shooters. The star witness was Jones, the pimp, who said he was sure they were the men he saw.

The verdict came back guilty on all counts. Cole and Anthony were given life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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The blade came from below and nicked his neck. Cole stumbled away. He looked at the face of his attacker and backed off. The yard was silent. He wiped at the dribbling blood.

It was Devil.

Eddie Eugene Clark was a respected elder in Cole’s old gang and neighborhood, and a shot-caller among the black inmates at Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County.

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On that morning in November 2000, Cole had known revenge could be on its way: He had refused an order from Clark to take the fall for a higher-ranking inmate who was caught with a knife.

Fear is currency in prison, and after six years of his life sentence, Cole saw what happened to those who allowed their fear or weakness to be known. They were raped, beaten, stabbed or killed. Failure to follow orders from above carried the same punishments.

He knew Devil would come after him again.

Cole dug out a knife from the yard that he fashioned from parts of a stapler, and hid it in his pants.

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Minutes later, he dug the knife into Clark’s neck.

For a second time, Cole was charged with murder. This time, he was subject to the death penalty because of the 1995 conviction. That drew the interest of the California Innocence Project, which reviews inmates’ claims of wrongful conviction.

Cole argued that he acted in self-defense.

“I play it over and over in my head, trying to figure out a way around me killing him,” he recalled. “I was going to kill him, or he was going to kill me.”

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Cole pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years on top of his life sentence. He was sent to solitary confinement.

In San Diego, Cole’s attorneys got to work.

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The California Innocence Project filed a habeas corpus petition to have Cole’s murder conviction in the brothel case thrown out. The group argued that Jones, the pimp, who had a previous conviction for manslaughter and was a police informant, had fabricated most of his testimony. A judge looked at the evidence and agreed.

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After 16 years in prison, and 10 years in solitary confinement, Cole was free — but not fully exonerated.

The lead detective on the case, Marcella Winn, remained steadfast that Cole was guilty.

“This guy did this murder, and there’s no doubt in my mind and in other witnesses’ minds,” she said at the time. “Mr. Cole is not innocent.”

In 2011, Anthony was released from prison after another judge concluded that Jones, the pimp, not only lied but was given a lighter sentence on pimping and pandering charges in exchange for his testimony — an agreement that prosecutors never disclosed to the defense.

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Both men filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, alleging wrongful imprisonment. It accused Winn and another detective of withholding potentially exculpatory evidence, allowing witnesses to perjure themselves on the stand and ignoring leads that pointed away from Cole and Anthony.

Their attorneys initially negotiated with the city together, but by 2015, the city was talking with the men separately.

In March, Cole was arrested on charges of mayhem, assault with a deadly weapon and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Police accused him of shooting a fellow gang member in the leg three years earlier after he refused to sell cocaine for Cole.

Cole was once more facing a life sentence in prison.

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Cole insisted he should never have been in prison in the first place — that Detective Winn, the prosecutor and the pimp, John Jones, had put him there. Once more, he saw it as a conspiracy against him.

“They’re setting me up again,” Cole said. “They’re mad at me because I got out of prison. They’re mad at an innocent man for getting out of prison....The State of California made me into a killer.”

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Obie Anthony stood with his wife before the microphones outside the Compton courthouse, announcing an $8.3-million settlement he had reached with the city of Los Angeles. There, a deputy district attorney told a judge that Cole had carried out the murder and the evidence against him was credible.

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Even though he wasn’t included in the payout, Cole stood behind his friend, gripping hand-written notes of what he wanted to tell reporters.

More than 20 years earlier, Cole and Anthony had been charged, tried and convicted together. They did their time together. But Anthony, he was thinking, had done this without him.

They were released because Cole killed a man, a crime for which he did 10 years in solitary confinement.

Cole tried to remind himself that Anthony had also suffered.

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But Cole couldn’t stop thinking that his association with Anthony helped land him in this mess, and Cole had taken a life to get them out of it. Yet it was Anthony in front of the cameras, his wife by his side, with $8 million headed his way. Cole had nothing.

He peeked at notes he had written on the way to the news conference, awaiting his turn to speak. But nobody asked him to step to the microphones, and nobody asked him a question.

The news crews packed up. Cole cradled his face in his palms and wept.

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On a hot day in August, Cole began his morning on the 11th floor of the Compton courthouse, where he was once again trying to prove that he didn’t murder Felipe Gonzales Angeles.

Then he rode the elevator down to the 10th floor and walked into another courtroom. There, a deputy district attorney told a judge that Cole, two years after leaving prison, had shot another gang member.

In two courtrooms in the same building, Cole was arguing he was innocent of crimes two decades apart.

In the mayhem case, the judge decided there was enough evidence to proceed to a jury trial. Cole rode the elevator back up to the 11th floor. There, Superior Court Judge Michael J. Shultz would rule whether Cole was “factually innocent” in the 1994 murder, a designation needed to receive compensation from the state for his years behind bars.

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Cole finally was able to face the woman he blames for ruining his life: Det. Marcella Winn. Cole fumed silently as she testified. He bickered with his attorneys, who he felt were not aggressive enough in their cross-examination.

In the end, however, the judge would rule strongly against most of the evidence used against Cole. He found that Winn suppressed evidence in the case of one eyewitness who had actually picked out an innocent person from a lineup before eventually selecting Cole in court. The detective also didn’t come clean when she was questioned under oath, the judge said.

The detectives knew that their best witness, Jones, repeatedly lied during the investigation, Schultz said.

The judge found that Cole had done enough to show he was “factually innocent” under the law. But Shultz stopped short of fully exonerating him.

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“I am not finding that he’s actually innocent,” the judge said in court. “You have not proven that. But you have proven that he is more-likely-than-not innocent.”

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To Cole, it was vindication enough.

And he still had his civil trial to show everyone how he’d been wronged, he thought.

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But months later, that case was put on hold. And now, he is on trial in the mayhem case, a possible life sentence hanging over him again.

He is at once a free man, and a man who will never be free.

“Whatever I am,” he says now, “ya’ll made me.”

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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Twitter: @sjceasar


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