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Cosby Murder Case Opens With Claim of Gang Link

Trial: Prosecutor says accused belongs to Mexican Mafia, cites fear for jurors. Defense calls it 'nonsense.'

June 17, 1998|STEVE BERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The long-awaited murder trial of a man accused of killing the son of internationally known entertainer Bill Cosby got underway with an explosive beginning and lightning speed Tuesday as the presiding judge began the often laborious process of selecting a jury.

Even before the pool of 94 jurors was summoned into the courtroom for questioning, the prosecution caused an uproar by charging that defendant Mikail Markhasev, a 19-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, is a "made member" of the notorious prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia--and that his gang connections could pose a danger to members of the jury.

Markhasev has been charged with killing Ennis Cosby in a failed robbery attempt Jan. 16, 1997, when the 27-year-old graduate student stopped on Skirball Center Road off the San Diego Freeway to change a tire on his Mercedes-Benz convertible.

Despite strict controls over press coverage and a court-ordered ban on cameras in the courtroom, broadcast and newspaper reporters from all over the country converged on the Santa Monica courthouse.

It is the second celebrity-tinged trial to spotlight this tiny courthouse in as many years. Last year the nation's attention was focused on O.J. Simpson's civil case, which unfolded in the courtroom next door to the Markhasev trial. A year before that, the former football star's criminal case brought national attention to Los Angeles County courts.

On Tuesday, a dreary, drizzly day greeted reporters and forced camera operators and photographers to huddle under canopies and trees outside the courtroom, waiting for pool reporters to provide the day's news.

Although Markhasev's case has not so far generated as much attention as the Simpson trials, the prosecution's opening salvo could be a harbinger of more sensational disclosures.

"This is a gang case," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Anne Ingalls during a hearing on whether the jurors' names will be kept secret.

"He is a gang member. He is affiliated with the Mexican Mafia, and from the start we have made efforts to make sure they are safe," she said, referring to jurors.

Markhasev, sitting a few feet away in front of his mother and another person, smiled and shook his head as if in disbelief, while his lawyer, Deputy Alternate Public Defender Henry J. Hall, shouted his objections.

"That is the biggest bunch of nonsense I have ever heard," Hall said when he got his chance to respond. "I will not dignify . . . this with a reply," he said.

Early Disclosure Highly Unusual

Sources knowledgeable about gang activity told The Times on Tuesday that Markhasev has corresponded and associated with affiliates of the Mexican Mafia while incarcerated in County Jail, but he is not included on the Department of Corrections validated list of members of the Mexican Mafia. To be included, someone has to meet at least three of eight criteria, such as admitting membership, wearing gang tattoos or being photographed with known members.

Ingalls' disclosures about her case was highly unusual in that they were made even before the jury selection started. They were part of her unsuccessful effort to persuade Superior Court David D. Perez to keep the names of jurors secret.

She said secrecy was needed to keep them from harassment or possible harm by gang members.

Although some of Markhasev's school friends have said he associated with gang members, Ingalls' comments Tuesday mark the first time the prosecution has said it has evidence to prove that affiliation.

"We have kept track of his activities in jail," she said. "We have information that he is a made member of the Mexican Mafia."

Whether the jury will ever hear that information is uncertain. Other than to describe the trial as a "gang case," Ingalls gave no further details of how it might relate to the charges against Markhasev. And in keeping with a court-imposed gag order, she has consistently refused to discuss the case outside the courtroom.

Attorney Karen N. Fredericksen, representing the Los Angeles Times, urged the court to deny Ingalls' request, arguing that she failed to show any compelling reason and offered no evidence that the jurors would be subjected to harassment by gang members.

Perez, apparently unmoved by the prosecution's fears, said he would keep a juror's name secret only if requested and if he found sufficient reason to grant it.

At the beginning of the jury selection, Perez warned all the jurors that their questionnaires would be made public unless they had good reasons to keep them secret. Only one requested privacy, and Perez said he would consider his reasons later.

Despite the unexpected hearing Tuesday, jury selection moved swiftly, and is expected to be completed with the selection of 12 jurors and six alternates by the end of today and opening arguments are scheduled for Monday. Initially, the selection was expected to last at least three days.

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