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Man Acquitted of Murder--After 5 Trials and 7 Years

November 11, 1986|DAVID JOHNSTON | Times Staff Writer

It took five trials and almost seven years for Tony Cooks' nightmare to end, but Monday in a Compton courtroom, a jury found him innocent of a murder in which he contended that he was a victim of mistaken identity involving a neighbor who resembled him.

Wild shouts and jubilation filled the courtroom as Clerk Denis Leeds read the verdict after six days of testimony and 4 1/2 hours of deliberation.

Family friends ran out into the hallway where Cooks' mother, Renetta, and other family members had held a prayer circle while waiting for the news that they could not bear to hear in person.

"This is the best feeling I've ever had in my life," said Cooks, 24, as he hugged and shook hands with jurors.

Subject of Article

The Cooks case was the subject of a 1983 Times story about whether Cooks had been wrongly convicted and had been the victim of mistaken identity. The first and third trials ended in hung juries, the second in a mistrial and the fourth in a conviction.

The judge in the fourth trial, Superior Court Judge Roosevelt Dorn, who has a reputation for being tough on defendants, tossed out the conviction. When it was reinstated on appeal, Dorn said that although he believed Cooks was innocent, he was required by law to pass sentence. He ordered Cooks to prison for 16 years to life.

He then freed Cooks on bail and attorneys Barry Tarlow and Brad Battson took up the appeal without charge, winning a new trial. Attorney John Yzurdiaga of Gardena was appointed to defend Cooks. With Monday's acquittal, Yzurdiaga said the Los Angeles County district attorney's office owes Cooks an apology for the seven-year ordeal.

Cooks had just turned 18 when his nightmare began about noon on March 7, 1980. He was strolling along a street in Paramount with a friend, Ray Coleman, and a 14-year-old neighbor boy who was a casual acquaintance. Suddenly Cooks was stopped by sheriff's deputies, handcuffed and told he was under arrest on suspicion of a murder that had occurred seven weeks earlier.

On Jan. 19, 1980, three black youths had jumped John Franklin Gould, 42, a former minor league baseball player who was bent over with arthritis, as he walked toward his apartment on Orange Avenue in Paramount as his wife locked the car on the street. Gould curled into a ball--beaten, stabbed and then shot by the youths who ran off into the night laughing. Gould died 12 days later.

The victim's widow, Barbara Gould, said one assailant held her off. She described him that night as a stocky, black youth wearing a knit cap, black leather jacket, dark pants and having a "bushy mustache." Helen Foster, a school crossing guard who saw the same assailant for "a split second" from 65 feet away in the dark, gave a similar description.

At Cooks' first four trials, the defense was unaware that five minutes after the killing and just two blocks away, three black youths--who were never charged in the case--had been stopped by sheriff's deputies. All three fit the descriptions given by Gould and Foster. One youth, Douglas Henderson, was wearing a cap, a black leather jacket, dark pants and had a mustache, according to sheriff's field identification cards that were entered into evidence only in the fifth trial.

Guard's Identification

Seven weeks after the killing, the school crossing guard saw three black youths walking up the street and summoned deputies. She identified Cooks as the killer. However, she was unable to identify the 14-year-old, even though she had picked him out of a police photo album earlier that morning as the perpetrator of an unrelated neighborhood assault.

The 14-year-old, who is Henderson's half-brother, confessed that he, Cooks and Coleman were the killers. As a result of his confession, he spent more than six years in California Youth Authority custody. Yzurdiaga said he believes that the boy had nothing to do with the slaying.

At Cooks' fifth trial, Yzurdiaga introduced previously undiscovered documents showing that the boy told his probation officer, who has since died, that his confession was "a lie" made up to satisfy a persistent detective.

Based on the confession and identifications by Mrs. Gould and Foster, Cooks was charged with second-degree murder. Coleman was never charged.

In 1983, after the fourth trial, the 14-year-old told The Times that he would concoct a story to send Cooks or anyone else to jail if it was necessary to protect Henderson, whom he was careful to avoid implicating.

Sheriff's Detective Vernon J. Clover, who investigated the case, told The Times in 1983 that Henderson was the only suspect in the case until Cooks' arrest.

Deputy's Testimony

During the fifth trial, prosecutor Thomas A. Gray showed a 1979 color picture of a black man to the sheriff's deputy who questioned Henderson on the night of the murder. "It resembles the defendant," Deputy Lester Fatone said. He was looking at a picture, not of Cooks, but of Henderson.

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