Tony Cooks was visiting his old neighborhood in Paramount last week when Doug Henderson walked up and gave him a hug.
"I didn't know what to do," said Cooks, who for six of his 24 years has fought a murder charge in what he says is a case of mistaken identity. Cooks has been tried four times on the murder charge and next week is scheduled to be tried for a fifth time.
"When Doug hugged me I thought, 'This is crazy. What is he doing?' " Cooks said.
In open court Cooks has said he believes Henderson is the real killer. His original defense lawyer has also said, both in and out of court, that he suspected Henderson, not Cooks, committed the murder. The detective who investigated the murder said Henderson was his only suspect until Cooks was arrested.
Henderson denies committing the crime.
Getting an unwanted hug from the man he believes ruined his life is but the latest in a series of bizarre episodes that have turned Cooks' life into a Kafkaesque nightmare.
The continuing story of Tony Cooks, first reported in The Times on Nov. 27, 1983, begins with a particularly repugnant murder on a Paramount sidewalk and a game of backgammon in a tract house one block away.
In one extraordinary episode, Superior Court Judge Roosevelt F. Dorn in 1983 sentenced Cooks to 15 years to life in prison after twice articulating from the bench some of the many facts that he indicated convinced him of Cooks' innocence. (However, the judge, who let Cooks remain free on appeal bond, said he was forced by a court rule to pass sentence after a jury voted to convict the defendant.)
"When I tell people the judge said he thinks I'm innocent and if I'd gotten a fair trial the jury would have acquitted me and then he sentenced me to life in prison they don't believe me," Cooks said.
What Cooks said he hopes will be the last episode in his tangled case is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Superior Court in Compton, when he will be tried for the fifth time for murder.
Cooks has a new lawyer for this trial, John Yzurdiaga of Gardena. And Yzurdiaga is armed with some fresh evidence that Brad Batson, an associate of Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer Barry Tarlow, dug up.
Yzurdiaga said "this case scares me" because most of his clients are guilty.
Took on Appeal Free
"Do you have any idea how scary it is to represent someone who may be innocent? The burden that puts on you as a lawyer? The more I look into this case the more it looks like Tony's innocent," Yzurdiaga said.
Tarlow took on Cooks' appeal free after reading about the case in The Times. Tarlow and Batson said they devoted 1,000 hours to Cooks' defense. They won a unanimous state appellate court decision in 1985 overturning Cooks' conviction at the fourth trial. The appeals court agreed with Judge Dorn that he had erred in permitting inadmissible evidence.
Cooks said he thought that was the end of it. His mood turned upbeat after what he said had been months of contemplating suicide as the only way to end his misery and let his parents, brothers and sisters get on with their lives. The family lost its house fighting the murder case.
But the following day the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office announced Cooks would be tried for the fifth time.
"We are convinced more than ever after our second investigation that we have the right guy," Jeffrey C. Jonas, a supervising prosecutor, said in announcing plans to try Cooks for the fifth time. He did not say what new evidence the district attorney has uncovered.
Responded Tarlow: "Some prosecutors think it is more of a challenge to convict innocent people," and he added that it is "unfortunate that the prosecutor's office cannot admit making a mistake."
Thomas A. Gray, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, has said that "the evidence against Cooks is overwhelming" with two eyewitnesses and the testimony of a youth who admitted participating in the murder.
The evidence Batson turned up adds to a list of items that none of the four juries ever heard about.
Sheriff's Homicide Detective Vernon J. Clover, who has since retired on a psychological stress pension, said Henderson was his original suspect in the case. Clover told the prosecutor and The Times that he dropped Henderson as a suspect when a telephone call indicated that Henderson was at work in Orange County at the time of the murder.
Stopped for Questioning
But when attorney Batson interviewed Clover, according to papers filed in Cooks' appeal, the retired detective said that Henderson was near the murder scene minutes after the crime was reported.
Uniformed sheriff's deputies stopped Henderson for questioning a few blocks from the murder minutes after it occurred, Batson said Clover told him. (Teams of deputies evidently stopped every black youth they could find within a mile or so of the murder that night.)