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Charges dismissed in case of man convicted 14 years ago of murder during botched robbery

Reggie Cole will remain in prison after killing man while incarcerated. Prosecutors and the investigators maintain he is guilty of the 1994 murder of Felipe Gonzales Angeles.

July 04, 2009|Hector Becerra

Fourteen years ago, Reggie Cole was sentenced to life without parole for a murder during a botched robbery in South Los Angeles.

This week, as Cole's sister, niece and 76-year-old stepfather looked on in a Compton courtroom, prosecutors dismissed the murder charge against him. But Cole didn't walk out a free man.

He remains incarcerated for killing an inmate nine years ago while he was at Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County.

Because Cole could have faced the death penalty for the prison slaying, his case came to the attention of the California Innocence Project, a law school program that reviews inmates' claims of wrongful conviction.

Cole, now 34, could be released from prison early next year after serving time for the prison killing, for which he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Attorney Christopher Plourd, who works for the Innocence Project, called that killing self-defense and said Cole never should have been in prison in the first place.

Family members agreed.

"I never had any doubt that he was innocent," said his sister Angela Jones, 45. "My concern for Reggie is for him to get back into society. He knows it's going to be hard. I spoke to him last week, and told him it's going to be difficult; it's going to be a change that's hard for all of us. But we're here for him."

Prosecutors and the detectives who investigated the killing of Felipe Gonzales Angeles said they do not believe Cole is innocent. Deputy Dist. Atty. George Castello said that, even though charges against Cole were dismissed, his office would review the case and consider whether to re-file murder charges against him.

"Do we think he's factually innocent? No," Castello said. "This is a technical matter. . . . We're going to take a new look at the case over the next months."

LAPD Det. Marcella Winn, who investigated the slaying, was even more emphatic.

"This guy did this murder, and there's no doubt in my mind and in other witnesses' minds," she said. "Mr. Cole is not innocent."

On a Saturday night in 1994, the 29-year-old Angeles, a Mexican immigrant, was visiting an apartment at the corner of 49th and Figueroa. As two friends waited in a car, Angeles went to knock on the door. At some point, Angeles was approached by armed men demanding money and, moments later, was mortally wounded. His two friends were also shot, but survived.

Two teenagers were arrested and charged in the slaying: Obie Anthony, a gang member, and Cole, who did not have a juvenile record but had been arrested twice, for evading police and carrying a concealed weapon. Former Los Angeles Times reporter Miles Corwin wrote about the shooting in his book "The Killing Season," describing Cole as "a skinny kid with acne on his shoulders who looks very frightened."

One of the key witnesses was an apartment manager, John Jones, who said he saw the shooting and eventually picked Anthony and Cole out of a lineup. Later it was discovered that Jones was a pimp and that the apartment was essentially a brothel. A video camera captured Angeles coming to the door, and moments later, threatening voices and then gunshots. The shooting and the gunmen were not captured by the camera.

Jones was "looking out a window. He had a camera in place because he wants to know who's coming in and who's going out," Winn said. "He doesn't want anyone robbing his girls."

Plourd said Cole's conviction was based on "fabricated testimony." Among his arguments, Plourd said Jones suggested that he did not see the actual shooting. Jones testified at an evidentiary hearing for the prison killing that he got his description of the shooters in the Angeles murder from his daughters, Plourd said.

Winn said that Jones testified while serving time and that if he wavered, it was because he didn't want to be labeled a "snitch."

In 2007, a judge in Imperial County ruled that the 1994 Angeles killing could not be considered as a special circumstance in the prison slaying, negating the death penalty. Early this year, the California Innocence Project filed a petition alleging, among other things, that Cole received ineffective counsel, that investigators inappropriately influenced witness testimony and that false evidence was used in his trial. In April, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge vacated Cole's murder conviction.

Winn said she stands by the testimony of the witnesses, including Angeles' friends. She said she's confident Cole will not be released.

"It was a good case 13, 14 years ago, and it's a good case now," Winn said.

Plourd said he would welcome a review of the case. He said he believes Obie Anthony is also innocent.

"The more time they take to review it the better off we are because I think they'll come to the conclusion Mr. Cole is innocent," he said.

In 2000, while in Calipatria, Cole stabbed to death an inmate and alleged "shot caller" in the prison, Eddie Eugene Clark. Plourd said it was self-defense, adding that Clark had tried to stab Cole earlier.

Winn and Imperial County prosecutors see it differently.

"I don't know how you can call it self-defense when you shank someone in the back," Winn said.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Cole's niece, 17-year-old Keonna Jones, said her uncle has taught her a lesson.

"He helped my mom raise me to be the person I am, to stay out of trouble, to do all I can do to make sure I don't get in the situation he's in," she said.

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

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