At 12:58 p.m. on February 7, 2000, 18-year-old Donovan Allen called 911 and reported that he found his 49-year-old mother, Sharon Cox, injured and bleeding on the floor of her bedroom in Longview, Washington.
Emergency personnel were unable to revive Cox. An autopsy later showed that she had been struck four times in the head with a blunt object and manually strangled. There were signs of a violent struggle—her glasses were broken and she was clutching a length of telephone cord, although there was no landline in the home. A cash box containing $1,550 and a gray file box containing birth certificates and other documents were missing.
At the time, Cox and her husband, Gerald Cox (Allen’s stepfather) lived near an apartment complex that they managed. Allen and his fiancée, Bonnie Walker, lived in one of the apartments in the complex. Allen performed maintenance work at the complex as did Cox’s nephew, Brian Del Kitts.
Allen told police that he had spoken to his mother on her cell phone a few minutes before noon and they discussed the tasks that Cox wanted Allen and Kitts to accomplish that day. Kitts was with Cox in her residence at the time of the call.
Allen said he left his apartment to walk to his mother’s home between 12:30 and 12:40 p.m. When he arrived and found Cox, he immediately called police.
The boxes were never recovered. A day later, police found a .22 rifle in a box in the garage. The stock was shattered and covered with blood and tissue.
Immediately, the police focused on Allen as the killer. They took him to the police station and interrogated him for five hours, acknowledging later they were trying to break him down and obtain a confession. Allen insisted he was not involved in the crime. Allen agreed to undergo a Computer Voice Stress Analysis and then was allowed to go home. Allen had a history of emotional and learning disabilities and had received psychiatric treatment as a youth.
On February 10, Allen voluntarily returned for more interviews and agreed to take a second voice stress test, which the detectives told Allen had “registered deception.” Afterwards Allen was allowed to leave.
Nearly a month later, on March 8, 2000, a team of detectives arrested Allen at a restaurant where Allen was planning to marry his fiancée, Bonnie Walker. The officer said they were charging him with intimidation because he allegedly told someone that he wanted to hurt one of the detectives who had interrogated him and because a witness claimed that Allen had threatened him to prevent him from revealing that information.
Allen was taken to the police station and interrogated from 10 p.m. until 6:45 a.m. when the detectives took a break. Police said that Allen “kept saying that he didn’t have the details because he didn’t do the crime.”
The interrogation resumed at 3:45 p.m. and Allen, while still insisting he was innocent, began saying things such as “I probably did it” because there was “so much saying that he did do it” and suggesting that he might have blacked out—that he killed his mother and couldn’t remember it. Allen asked to take a third voice stress test and was informed that he had failed again. Police later said that was when Allen began “reliving the crime” and confessed in detail.
Allen admitted, in a statement that was tape-recorded, that he and Cox were arguing because he needed money to pay for drugs and that the fight escalated as she went into her bedroom. There, he choked her with a telephone cord until it broke and when she tried to escape, she fell to the ground. Allen said he got a rifle from the gun cabinet and hit Cox twice in the head. The gun stock shattered, he picked up the pieces, washed them in the bathroom and then hid them in the garage. He said he returned and got the cashbox and as he walked out, dropped a piece of the telephone cord on the floor. He said he threw the cash box into a nearby slough and then came back and because he thought Cox might still be alive, called 911.
Police took Allen out of the jail to look for the cash box, but it could not be found.
Allen was charged with aggravated murder with robbery as the aggravating factor and went to trial in Cowlitz County Superior Court in February 2002.
The defense argued that the confession was false and the result of police showing Allen graphic autopsy photos of his mother. A medical examiner said Cox was strangled manually with one hand and that she was struck in the head four times before she was strangled—facts that contradicted Allen’s confession that he choked her first with a telephone cord and then struck her in the head twice with the stock of the rifle.
Two men who were inmates in jail with Allen while he was awaiting trial testified that he confessed to them that he killed Cox because he needed money to pay for drugs.
No physical evidence connected Allen to the murder, despite DNA testing that was performed on some of the evidence.
On March 8, after 18 hours of deliberation, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict and a mistrial was declared.
Allen went to trial a second time in October 2002. He was convicted by the jury on October 23, 2002, despite defense evidence that suggested the murder actually had been committed by Brian Del Kitts, Cox’s nephew—who had been in Cox’s home on the morning of the murder.
Allen was sentenced to life in prison without parole. His appeals were denied by the Washington Court of Appeals and the Washington Supreme Court.
In 2011, Innocence Project Northwest at the University of Washington School of Law began re-investigating Allen’s case. In April 2015, IPNW attorney Anna Tolin filed a motion seeking DNA testing of evidence in the case.
The motion was supported by an analysis of Allen’s confession prepared by Northwestern Law School professor Steven Drizin, a false confession expert. Drizin concluded that the confession was filled with “false fed facts” from police. These included statements that there was blood in the shower from where Allen washed off the gun—but there was no blood in the shower, as well as the false statements about how many times Cox was struck and that she was choked before she was hit in the head.
In the confession, Allen said he cut his finger on the rifle’s gunsight, but Drizin noted that Allen’s blood was not found anywhere in the home or on his clothing on the day of the crime. There was no evidence that Allen ever cut his finger, Drizin said in the report.
Drizin said the confession contained “many of the indicia of unreliability that are commonly seen in false confessions. There are errors in the confession narrative (facts which do not ‘fit’ the objectively knowable evidence), false fed facts (facts which support an early police theory of the case which was not borne out by the evidence), and there is a lack of corroboration (no proceeds of the robbery, no metal cash box, no bloody clothes).”
The request for testing was granted and revealed the DNA of Brian Del Kitts on the collar of Cox’s turtleneck and other areas of her sweater and on the barrel of the rifle used to club Cox to death.
In November 2015, Kitts was arrested and charged with Cox’s murder.
On December 1, 2015, Allen’s conviction was vacated and Cowlitz County Prosecutor Ryan Jurvakainen dismissed the case, and Allen was released.
Jurvakainen called the decision to dismiss the charge against Allen “the right thing to do.”
– Maurice Possley