In August 1990, in Richmond, Virginia, a woman opened her door to a man claiming to be a drug agent conducting an investigation. The man forced his way in and abducted her at knife point, taking her to a car where his accomplice was waiting. Her body was found a short time later. Two neighbors of the victim, both of whom claimed to have been approached by the same man, provided police with descriptions of the perpetrator from which the police created a composite sketch. The police theorized the murder was revenge for a drug deal and had two suspects in mind, Stephen Hood and William Madison. Hood told the police that Jeffrey Cox was a friend of Madison’s and Cox’s picture was included in the photo lineup presented to the neighbors. Both witnesses tentatively identified Cox. Cox offered an alibi -- that he had been with friends -- but his credibility was undermined by an earlier statement in which he had confused the dates and said he had been at a party at Madison’s place. No physical evidence connected Cox to the murder, and he was not involved in the drug deal police believed was at the root of the crime.
On the basis of the witness identifications, a jury convicted Cox of first-degree murder, kidnapping, and breaking and entering, and in March 1991, he was sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years.
New evidence emerged after Cox was convicted. One eyewitness had several felony convictions, which he had lied about on the stand. The other witness was facing charges that were dropped after his testimony. Further, the police composite sketch did not match Cox. The police failed to share this information with the defense. Hair found under the victim’s fingernails, when tested, did not match Cox’s hair, and Hood – one of the police’s original suspects -- eventually confessed that he and Madison were the two perpetrators. Based on this new evidence, Cox’s habeas petition was granted by the Virginia Supreme Court and he was released in November 2001.
In 2002, the Commonwealth awarded Cox $750,000 in compensation for his wrongful incarceration.
- Stephanie Denzel