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Jeffrey Cox

Other Virginia Cases with Perjury or False Accusation
About 3 a.m. on August 31, 1990, 63-year-old Ilouise Cooper and her husband, a stroke victim who needed a cane to walk, were awakened by a loud banging on the door of their apartment in Richmond, Virginia. When Ilouise answered, a man on the other side identified himself as a narcotics detective from nearby Henrico County.

When Ilouise unhooked the chain and opened the door, the man dragged her from the apartment. Her husband was unable to catch up as the man dragged the 88-pound woman to a red car waiting on the street. The man forced Ilouise into the car and it sped away.

The police arrived shortly thereafter, having already been summoned by James “Butch” Corbin, a neighbor, who had come to the neighborhood to pick up a friend for work. He said he noticed a white male on the porch of an apartment building that was a couple of doors down the street. He also saw a red car parked on the wrong side of the street with its lights off and its engine running. A white male was behind the wheel. Corbin said that as he walked to his car, the man on the porch ran up carrying a 5- or 6-inch knife, yelling, “Halt! Henrico Policeman!”

Corbin said the man was white, about 6 feet tall and 185 to 195 pounds, and seemed drunk. The man said he was conducting a drug investigation and asked whether someone named Johnson lived nearby. When Corbin said he did not know, the man returned to the porch across the street. Corbin left and called police from a pay phone to report the man’s suspicious activities. Corbin said that by the time he returned, Cooper had been abducted and police were on the scene. He told an officer that the man who confronted him was wearing blue jeans, tennis shoes, a baseball cap, and a light blue T-shirt.

Estelle Johnson told police she had been home with her two children, ages 2 and 5, when she was awakened around 2 or 2:30 a.m. by the incessant ringing of her doorbell. She peeked through a curtain and saw a white man with stone-washed jeans, a light-colored T-shirt and a white baseball cap. He was digging at her neighbor’s door with a knife. At about that time, Johnson said she saw Corbin walk to the street and the man ran up to Corbin. She noticed the man had a knife sheath on his left leg.

Johnson said that she heard the man tell Corbin he was on a drug bust for Henrico County and he was looking for “Dolores Johnson.” The man then returned to the building and began ringing her doorbell again. Johnson said she opened the inside door and the man, who appeared to be high or intoxicated, asked if she knew anyone named Johnson and if she lived alone. Johnson said she confirmed her name was Johnson, but said she did not live alone. When the man asked her to come outside, she asked for identification. When he showed her what appeared to be a telephone calling card, she closed and locked the door.

Johnson said the man walked to the red car and briefly chatted with the driver before he disappeared from view. Soon, she heard a woman scream for help and saw the man with the knife pushing a woman into the red car. She then heard Cooper’s husband calling for help. She assisted him in getting back into his apartment and she called the police.

Hours later, Cooper’s body was found alongside an isolated dirt road. She had been stabbed to death. Her clothing was in disarray, but none of her jewelry had been taken.

Dr. Marcella Fierro, deputy chief medical examiner for the Central District of Virginia, conducted an autopsy. There was no evidence of a sexual assault. She said the murder weapon was a knife with a blade 5 or 6 inches long. Dr. Fierro collected hair and blood samples. She found a hair on the woman’s left index finger and a hair on the base of the left middle finger. She recovered a fiber that was caught in a broken fingernail on Cooper’s right hand.

Early in the investigation, police believed the crime was drug-related and focused on Billy Madison and Stephen Hood. The theory was that Madison had arranged to make a drug purchase, but the dealer had beaten Madison up and stolen Madison’s money. Police believed that Madison and Hood were out for revenge and were looking for the drug dealer or, more likely, a relative or friend of the dealer who they believed lived near Cooper.

Madison and Hood were brought in for questioning, both denied involvement in the crime. When they were asked to name associates, Hood mentioned that one of Madison’s associates was 22-year-old Jeffrey Cox. At the time, Cox was an air-conditioning installer from New Kent County, Virginia, just outside Richmond. He had no prior arrests and no connection to the victim or the eyewitnesses. He would never be linked to the crime by physical or forensic evidence.

On October 17, 1990, police went to a construction site where Cox was working. They said they were investigating a break-in and wanted to take his photo. Cox agreed. The officers later said they noticed that he had a knife sheath attached to his leg.

The officers created a photo lineup that included the photos of Madison and Hood and also of Cox. Corbin and Johnson did not identify Madison or Hood, but both tentatively identified Cox as the man with a knife. They said they would like to see him in person before they could be sure.

The following day, October 18, 1990, Cox was arrested on charges of breaking and entering, abduction and murder. When questioned by police, Cox was asked about his whereabouts on the night August 30 and early morning hours of August 31. They asked if he had been at a party at Billy Madison’s. Cox, who didn’t know Madison was a suspect, said he recalled being at a party about that time. However, he was mistaken. Madison’s party was on the night of September 1, more than 24 hours after Cooper was abducted and murdered.

In fact, Cox had been with friends on the night of August 30. He spent the night with them and went to work about 7:30 a.m. on August 31—about four hours after Cooper was abducted. However, by the time he realized that, he had been charged and authorities believed he had created a false alibi.

After Cox was arrested, police asked Johnson to view a live lineup containing Billy Madison, but not Cox. She failed to identify anyone. Corbin was not asked to view a live lineup.

At a preliminary hearing, Corbin and Johnson testified about what they saw that night. Corbin made an in-court identification of Cox. Johnson was not asked to identify him.

Prior to the trial, the prosecutor, Learned Barry, provided information to the defense on the theory that Madison and Hood had been involved in the drug deal that led to the abduction and murder. The prosecution also disclosed a composite sketch that had been made by police based on the witnesses’ descriptions, and notified the defense that Corbin had a prior conviction for robbery.

On February 13, 1991, Cox went to trial in Richmond City Circuit Court. He was convicted the same day, represented by an attorney who was in the middle of a federal trial, but was given the day off from that trial to defend Cox.

Dr. Fierro testified about the autopsy and cause of death. Although Dr. Fierro had noted that there would be further forensic analysis at the time of her autopsy, no other medical or laboratory reports were introduced into evidence.

Johnson and Corbin testified. Both recounted what they saw that night and both identified Cox as the man who abducted Cooper. Both indicated the man was right-handed and had no facial hair. Cox was left-handed and had a mustache.

During cross-examination of Corbin, he admitted that he had been convicted of robbery. He insisted the red car’s lights were off, while Johnson said she recalled the lights were on.

Several witnesses testified that Cox was with them that night and Cox also testified. He denied committing the crime. The prosecutor attacked his credibility by introducing his initial statement to police that he had been at a party at Madison’s.

During closing argument, prosecutor Barry told the jury that Corbin and Johnson had nothing to gain. “Now, what did we produce to convince you beyond a reasonable doubt? We took two eyewitnesses, not one, but two people who have absolutely no ax to grind, and no reason to come in here and misidentify anybody. They are simply citizens in the City of Richmond that happen to be living in the community on the night this occurred.”

During jury deliberation, the jury asked four questions: Why was Mr. Cox chosen as the primary suspect? What events led to his investigation by the police? Why wasn’t the analysis of skin and hair under the fingernail and fiber under the right index fingernail entered as evidence? Could they hear the testimony again relating to whether Cox was wearing a knife when he was interviewed by police? The trial court declined to answer any of the questions. Not long after, the jury convicted Cox of first-degree murder, breaking and entering and abduction. He was sentenced to life plus 50 years in prison that same day.

Under Virginia law at the time, Cox had 21 days to introduce new evidence. On the day before this period was to expire, Cox took a polygraph exam administered by a retired Virginia state trooper. Cox was deemed to be truthful when he denied involvement. A motion was made to set aside the verdict, but no hearing was set and the 21-day period expired. In May 1991, three months after the trial and before any appeal had been filed—and significantly—with a second suspect still not apprehended—some of the physical evidence was destroyed by police. The destruction complied with the Richmond Police Department policy in effect at that time.

In March 1992, the Virginia Court of Appeals refused to overturn the verdict. Cox’s appellate lawyer never filed an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. In July 1992, when the appellate lawyer realized he had blown the deadline, he filed a writ of habeas corpus seeking permission to file a late appeal. Cox, upset with the lawyer’s negligence, and realizing that in Virginia, a prisoner is allowed only one attempt at habeas, requested that the writ be withdrawn. That was granted.

Cox fired his appellate lawyer and began writing letters requesting evidence from the Director of the Commonwealth’s Bureau of Forensic Science and from the prosecutor, Learned Barry. He sent letters to all his former attorneys. In November 1992, having gotten no responses, Cox filed a pro se petition for a writ of mandamus to compel the prosecution to disclose all information relating to the autopsy as well as any analyses that were done. When Barry did not respond, Cox filed a peremptory writ of mandamus. Circuit Court Judge Randall Johnson sent a letter to Cox and Barry asking that Barry call to arrange a hearing.

Three weeks passed and nothing had happened. On January 25, 1993, Cox filed a renewed motion for peremptory writ of mandamus. Again, nothing was done. On May 15, 1993, Cox sent a letter to Judge Johnson, begging for help. Eleven days later, Judge Johnson wrote to Cox saying he had been informed by Barry that the evidence had been sent, but acknowledged that was incorrect and that he would order the prosecution to comply or explain why not at a hearing in June 1993. When still nothing happened, Cox sent a new petition directly to the Supreme Court and sent a copy by certified mail to Judge Johnson.

As a result, Judge Johnson held a hearing on September 1, 1993. None of the police officers that Cox had requested be there showed up. A prosecutor was there, but it wasn’t Barry. After the hearing, Judge Johnson denied the writ on the grounds that the items he sought were not in the possession of the prosecution. The order did not address whether the items were in the possession of the police department. In November 1993, the Virginia Supreme Court denied Cox’s petition for a writ of mandamus.

Cox then filed a habeas petition with the Circuit Court of Richmond City in November 1994. That was rejected. In August 1995, the Virginia Supreme Court allowed him to file a delayed petition for direct appeal. Subsequently, a court-appointed attorney filed the petition, but it was denied in April 1996.

Cox refiled his pro se habeas petition in November 1996 and the prosecution filed a motion to dismiss. In the summer of 1997, the Cox family approached Richmond defense attorneys Steven Benjamin and Betty Layne DesPortes. DesPortes wondered if the James Corbin who testified at Cox’s trial was the same James Corbin who had been recently convicted of drug crimes in federal court. DesPortes and Benjamin began investigating Johnson and Corbin.

They discovered that Corbin had three felony convictions, not the one he testified to at trial. Although the prosecution claimed the information had been disclosed—which the defense contested—the prosecution still had allowed Corbin to testify falsely. Johnson, they discovered, had two criminal charges of failing to appear in court pending at the time of the preliminary hearing, both of which were dismissed about three weeks later. Prior to Cox’s trial, Johnson was charged with trespassing and assault. Both were pending at the time of trial and both were dismissed shortly after the trial. None of these charges or dismissals was disclosed to Cox’s defense. The dismissal of the assault and trespassing charges after Cox’s trial, suggested that Johnson received a benefit for her prosecution that had not been disclosed, the defense contended.

The defense lawyers reviewed a serology report and a report on an analysis of the hairs and fingernail scrapings, which had never been disclosed to the defense. The hair analysis said two fine white Caucasian hairs were found (Cox had brown hair), but both were not suitable for comparison. There was no report on the fiber caught in the victim’s broken fingernail.

In September 1997, Benjamin and DesPortes filed an amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Two days of hearings were held in 1999. The petition was denied.

In March 1999, an investigator working with Benjamin and DesPortes asked the FBI for help. Because the crime had been classified as a drug-related homicide, the FBI had jurisdiction. FBI agent Frank Stokes received the inquiry and recalled that although the FBI had not been involved in the investigation, there had been rumors that an innocent man had been convicted.

Stokes and his partner, Donald Lacey, interviewed numerous people, including the friend that Corbin said he came to pick up that night. The friend said Corbin never picked her up and that—contrary to his trial testimony—he told her he actually witnessed the abduction. They also interviewed Johnson and she told a different version of the events of that night. Stokes and Lacey were convinced that neither Corbin nor Johnson were reliable witnesses.

The agents also looked at the Richmond Police file on the case and discovered a second composite sketch that looked nothing like Cox. The sketch had never been disclosed to the defense.

Based on the discovery of this evidence, the court vacated its order denying Cox’s amended petition. The defense team continued turning up evidence. They discovered that an arrest warrant for Corbin in the state of Alabama was outstanding at the time of trial. Corbin had been turned over to Alabama, but not until after Cox’s trial. The defense also noticed that Johnson testified at the preliminary hearing that she was home with her two children, but at the trial, she testified that at the time of the crime, she had three children. The youngest, she said, “was like two to three weeks, four weeks at the time.” A check of birth records showed the third child had not been born at the time of the abduction.

On May 21, 2001, while the petition was pending, police arrested Stephen Hood and charged him with the abduction and murder.

On September 12, 2001, the Virginia Supreme Court granted Cox an appeal. Not long after, Cox’s defense team and the prosecution filed a joint motion to suspend the briefing for two months.

A month later, the defense and prosecution agreed to withdraw the appeal. The case was remanded to the Circuit Court where, on November 13, 2001, Cox’s convictions were vacated and he was released.

In March 2002, the Virginia General Assembly authorized a $750,000 compensation payment to Cox. As a condition of the payment, Cox agreed not to file a lawsuit against any prosecutors or police.

During Hood's trial in April 2002, the prosecution was allowed to introduce a proffer that Hood made as part of plea negotiations. In the proffer, which Hood later claimed was a lie, he said that he was with Billy Madison on the night of the crime and provided the knife that Madison used to kill Cooper. The proffer said Madison wanted to avenge a drug deal that went wrong and that Madison abducted the woman and killed her. The proffer was not to be used by the prosecution at trial unless there was testimony presented by the defense that was at odds with the proffer. After the defense elicited testimony that the attack on Cooper was similar to other murders of women at that time that were unsolved and believed to be the work of a serial killer, the trial judge, who was hearing the case without a jury, allowed the prosecution to present the proffer.

On April 4, 2002, the judge convicted Hood of murder and misdemeanor abduction as an accessory after the fact. He was sentenced to 65 years in prison.

Hood subsequently filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition was granted in 2009 on the ground that the prosecution should not have been allowed to present the proffer as evidence at the trial. On April 14, 2011, Hood entered an Alford plea--maintaining his innocence while agreeing that the prosecution had sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction--to a felony charge of attempted abduction. He was then released. Hood later filed a petition for a writ of innocence which was still pending in 2021.

Billy Madison was never charged.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 9/7/2021
County:Richmond City
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Kidnapping, Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1990
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No