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THE ENNIS COSBY MURDER TRIAL

Despite a Famous Name, It Was a Straightforward Case

Crime: The trial involved a 'plain old street murder,' one observer says, and was the kind Los Angeles County prosecutors win every day.

July 08, 1998|ALAN ABRAHAMSON and ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Although the Los Angeles County district attorney's office has had trouble in recent years prosecuting the big ones, it is usually a winner in the everyday trials that make up most of the workload in the criminal courts.

And so, legal experts and analysts said Tuesday, it came as no surprise that a Superior Court jury in Santa Monica, after less than a day's deliberations, convicted Mikail Markhasev of murdering Ennis Cosby. Markhasev now faces the prospect of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"This, unfortunately, is a plain old street murder," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School dean, who noted that the prosecution played to its strengths--emphasizing for jurors that, in the courtroom, less is often more.

"It was very straightforward," Levenson said. "The prosecution, to its credit, played it like a plain old murder case.

"They didn't try to make it into the 'trial of the century.' By playing it down, by not building the case into more than it was, they were able to present their best case."

But in a way the case wasn't like every other case. What made this case different was the fame of the victim's father, entertainer Bill Cosby--a point brought home by Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti's appearance Tuesday outside the Santa Monica courthouse after the verdicts were announced.

In other respects, the Markhasev case unfolded like most trials in Los Angeles--the ones that play daily to nearly empty courtrooms on the ninth floor of the Criminal Courts Building downtown and in outposts such as Van Nuys, Pomona and Santa Monica:

* Some witnesses were problematic but, on the whole, the case went quickly, in about two weeks. Speed helps the prosecution.

"There's no two ways about that," said David Conn, the former prosecutor, now in private practice, who won murder convictions in the second trial in the Menendez brothers case. "The passage of time always means complication. And the goal of the prosecution, all things being equal, is to keep the case simple."

* The trial turned on a familiar issue, the identity of the killer. This occurs so often in so many courthouses that it long ago earned its own acronym, the "SODDI defense"--for "some other dude did it."

* There was no TV coverage in the courtroom.

* And, in Deputy Dist. Atty. Anne Ingalls and Deputy Alternate Public Defender Henry J. Hall, the lead lawyers were hard-working public servants--hardly talk show fixtures arriving at the courthouse door via chauffeured limousine.

In short, it was everyday justice--with a predictable result. The district attorney's office racks up convictions in nine of 10 felonies.

"This is the kind of case we do," Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said Tuesday after the verdicts were returned. "We're probably trying four others [similar cases] in the county right now."

A juror in the case offered this assessment: "The job of the district attorney is not to convict but to see justice is done." The juror, a retired electronics worker who requested anonymity, contrasted Ingalls' work with that of the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, saying that Ingalls allowed the evidence to speak for itself. "She was not like Marcia Clark. She didn't say 'He did it.' "

The facts of this case were fairly straightforward:

Ennis Cosby, 27, who was on winter break from his doctoral studies at Columbia University in New York, was killed Jan. 16, 1997, while on his way to Sherman Oaks to visit a friend, Stephanie Crane.

He stopped on Skirball Center Drive off the San Diego Freeway to change a flat tire. Crane, who lived just a few minutes away, drove out to help him.

In a parking lot several hundred feet away, according to authorities, were Markhasev and two friends, Eli Zakaria and Sara Peters, Zakaria's girlfriend. Authorities alleged that Markhasev went to rob Cosby but ended up killing him, after which the three sped away, ditching the gun in a wooded area about five miles away.

A few days later, Markhasev went to look for the gun. Along with him went Michael Chang, a former cellmate from juvenile hall, and Christopher So, Chang's friend. They did not find it.

Police later found the murder weapon, wrapped in a knit cap containing strands of Markhasev's hair.

"In a murder case," said Harland Braun, a former prosecutor turned veteran criminal defense lawyer, "the jury wants to know what happened. . . . Someone's dead and there's got to be an accounting for it.

"The burden," he continued, "is on the defense to justify [the crime]. Lawyers can say whatever they want about reasonable doubt. If the prosecution has enough to go to the jury and the defense can't put on a coherent defense and explain what happened and why, the prosecution wins."

At the outset of the trial, defense attorney Hall promised to prove to jurors that "the person who really did the killing in this case was Eli Zakaria."

In closing arguments, however, Hall had to concede that he could not keep his promise.

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