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Eighteen-year-old Tony Cooks was convicted of second-degree murder in 1981, after four trials in Los Angeles County, California. When a fifth trial in 1986 revealed details of a sloppy police investigation, Cooks was acquitted.
On January 19, 1980, 42-year-old John Franklin Gould was beaten outside his Paramount Apartment Building by three black youths in a racially motivated attack. Gould, a white man, was a former minor league baseball player. At age 42, he was nearly bent over with severe arthritis. His wife, Barbara, witnessed his beating.
Thirteen days later, Gould succumbed to his injuries. He had never regained consciousness.
Throughout the next five weeks, Sheriff’s Deputy Vernon J. Clover met repeatedly with Helen Foster, who would become the prosecution’s main witness. She claimed to have seen Barbara Gould and the three assailants from her front porch, despite the fact that her door was 177 feet south of the crime scene and a chain-link fence obscured her view. On March 7, 1980, Clover presented Foster with a photo lineup. Foster recognized the picture of one boy, a 14-year-old (who remains unnamed) with a history of mental problems, because three weeks earlier she had told police that he had molested two young girls. She also identified the 14-year-old boy’s older half-brother, Douglas Henderson, who resembled Cooks, but she claimed that he was not one of the attackers.
After meeting with Clover, Foster returned to her duties as a lunchtime crossing guard. Just minutes later, she saw a group of three black youths—Cooks, his friend Ray Coleman, and the 14-year-old boy—walking along the sidewalk across the street and summoned authorities. Once deputies arrived on the scene, Foster identified Cooks, whom she did not know, as the killer. She claimed not to recognize either of the other two youths, even though she had identified the 14-year-old in the photo lineup just moments before. Cooks was arrested, but the other two were released.
On March 10, the 14-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of molesting the two young girls. While in custody, he was also interviewed about Gould’s murder. The boy confessed and named Cooks as the primary killer. Later, when Cooks identified Henderson as the murderer in court, the boy asserted that even if his half-brother were guilty, he would not tell authorities. Two days after the 14-year-old boy’s arrest, Clover composed a report based on his interview with the boy. The report included a 312 word verbatim confession, even though the interview was not tape-recorded, and the boy’s statement was written in language the boy likely would not have used, given his age and mental history.
In late 1981, after four trials, Cooks was convicted. His first and third trials had resulted in hung juries and his second was declared a mistrial. Superior Court Judge Roosevelt Dorn tossed out the conviction in light of “troubling” issues that convinced him Cooks did not receive a fair trial. In addition to the unreliability of the 14-year-old boy, who later recanted his confession, Dorn deemed Cooks’ defense lawyer, Gus A. Poole, “totally incompetent.” At the time of Cooks’ trial, Poole was also defending Henderson, who Cooks believed was the real killer, in an unrelated criminal case.
Also, Dorothy McWilliams, the mother of one of Cooks’ friends, did not come forward to confirm Cooks’ alibi for the night of the murder because she feared her son Ronnie would be sent to juvenile hall for violating the terms of his probation. One condition stipulated that he was not to associate with Tony Cooks.
Clover also cleared Douglas Henderson through a telephone call that revealed he was working in Orange County at the time of the murder. The prosecutor, Thomas A. Gray, commented that this was a “totally inadequate” measure to eliminate a murder suspect from an investigation.
Finally, Clover’s investigation excluded two primary witnesses who provided information that contradicted the testimonies of Foster and Barbara Gould. Two Latina sisters, Cathy and Pamela Canales, occupied an apartment on the second floor of the building where the murder took place. In separate interviews, each said they saw the three youths leave the murder scene headed southbound, not north toward the Foster home, as Foster and Gould testified. Poole failed to call the sisters as witnesses, and Clover did not mention them in his reports because he claimed they did not provide him with any “useful” information.
The specific grounds on which Dorn tossed out the conviction was the suggestive photo lineup Clover had presented to Barbara Gould on March 7. Clover assembled photographs of Cooks, Ray Coleman, and four other black youths who were not suspects. Cooks was the lightest-skinned man among those pictured. Gould’s identification of Cooks was uncertain at best. Throughout the rest of the court proceedings, Gould identified Cooks as the killer with certainty. Both Gould and Foster offered inconsistent testimonies throughout the trials, and their testimonies conflicted at times.
After Dorn threw out Cooks’ conviction, an appeals court reinstated it. Despite his belief in Cooks’ innocence, the law required Dorn to sentence Cooks. He received 15-years-to-life in prison.
On November 27, 1983, a reporter, David Johnston, who had been introduced to the Cooks case by prosecutor Gray, published a story in the Los Angeles Times. His interest had been piqued by Cooks’ adamant denial of his involvement in the crime throughout the proceedings. After reading Johnston’s article, attorneys Barry Tarlow and Brad Batson convinced attorney John Yzurdiaga to take on Cooks’ appeal pro bono, helping him to secure a fifth trial in 1985. At the fifth trial, Clover admitted to destroying evidence he deemed unimportant and to withholding certain pieces of evidence from the prosecution and defense. He testified that a field identification card that Poole and Gray never saw was likely stuck between the pages of his reports until after the fourth trial. This pink, three-by-five-inch sheriff’s field identification card, became the key piece of evidence on which the jury based its acquittal of Cooks. The card showed that Henderson was stopped for questioning five minutes after the killing just a few blocks away. The clothing Henderson wore matched perfectly the descriptions of the killer’s attire given by Barbara Gould and another witness. The killer had been described as sporting a mustache; Henderson had a mustache. Henderson’s companions also fit the descriptions that Gould gave authorities.
Cooks’ acquittal and exoneration came on November 10, 1986. Acknowledging that his was a case of mistaken identity, Cooks said he had every reason to feel bitter, but didn’t. “Now I just feel great,” he told reporters. “I’m just absorbing living free and I want to get away for a while and think about what I want to do and then get on with my life.” He added that “I’ve got my freedom. And that’s all I want.”
- Carling Spelhaug and Dolores Kennedy
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.