In 1983, Times staff writer David Johnston reported in View on the case of Tony Cooks, who had been convicted of murder after four trials. Johnston's story, "Doubts Haunt Murder Conviction," was judged the best news story of the year by the California-Nevada editors of United Press International. On Monday, in a fifth trial, Cooks was acquitted, partly on the basis of new information uncovered in Johnston's investigation.
It's been almost seven years since Tony Cooks of Compton could spend a day like Tuesday: sleeping well, awakening refreshed, tossing a football around with a 10-year-old nephew and feeling carefree.
Since 1980, Cooks, who is 24 years old, had been consumed fighting charges that he was one of three black youths who beat, stabbed and shot a crippled Paramount man as the victim's terrified wife screamed at them to stop. So heartless were the killers that they ran off into the night laughing.
Ordeal Ended Monday
Cooks, who was out on bail for all but a few days, was tried five times for the murder of John Franklin Gould, a former minor league baseball player. There were two hung juries, one mistrial and a 1981 conviction that the trial judge tossed out. On Monday, the fifth trial--and Cooks' ordeal--ended when a Superior Court jury of five blacks, five whites and two Asians found Cooks innocent.
Cooks, the victim of mistaken identity, said he has every reason to feel bitter about having to endure five trials, but doesn't.
"Now I just feel great," he said Tuesday night. "I'm just absorbing living free and I want to get away for awhile and think about what I want to do and then get on with my life."
He had trouble finding work after his fourth trial because he told employers about his murder conviction. Then he concealed that fact, got a job as a painter in an industrial trailer factory and was regarded as such a model employee that when he told his boss he needed time off work to go to court "they thought I was lying, that I just made up the story about the murder trial to get off work."
The factory later went broke. "I don't know what I'm going to do," Cooks said Wednesday. "Someone called today and offered me a job. I've been thinking about electronics and computer repair, but right now I just want to enjoy feeling free." A high school dropout, he also said he wants to resume his schooling.
Confident of a Wonderful Life
He added that he is confident he will have a wonderful life now, that the five trials may even have been a blessing in disguise by forcing him to learn so much about the human condition. "If this hadn't happened, I think I probably would have ended up like my friends I grew up with, all ruined on drugs," Cooks said.
Cooks said that what weighed most heavily on him from the day of his arrest in March, 1980, until his acquittal six years and eight months later was that anyone would believe he had killed Gould, who at age 42 was bent over with arthritis.
"How could anyone think I would do this?" Cooks asked Tuesday night. "I was raised in the old-fashioned way: you tell the truth, you respect your elders. One thing we learned as kids was to respect your elders. If an old person comes to the door, anything I can do for them, I would.
"My grandmother, Henrietta Walker, my mother's mother, she raised me in Greenwood in Mississippi for three years when I was in the third, fourth and fifth grades and she always told me that the truth will prevail, the truth will set you free.
"I always would think about that inside my mind through all of this: if you don't lie, you don't worry about nothing. And I remembered how when we were little kids, when we used to do bad, if we lied about each other, she would tell us the most important thing was to just tell the truth.
"But Mr. Gray (Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas A. Gray, who prosecuted Cooks) and the others, they don't know me so they don't know that. I understand that," Cooks said. "To them I was just another black teen-ager in a predominantly white community." (Gould was white.)
Cooks is the fourth of eight children born to David and Renetta Cooks, who fled the poverty and racism of rural Mississippi for Los Angeles in 1965. David Cooks worked in construction and drove trucks; Renetta worked in a Long Beach hospital food service department. By 1970 they had saved enough money to buy a modest house in a mostly white Paramount neighborhood.
Six of the eight Cooks children graduated from high school. One sister earned several small scholarships and several of the now-grown children are still in college. Two teachers told The Times that they recalled the Cooks children as polite, honest, average students who were good athletes.
One son, Tommy Cooks, 22, who wanted to become a Los Angeles police officer prior to the murder case, said he plans to open his own security business soon.