Strange Justice in Virginia
THE VIRGINIA attorney general's office has defended the murder conviction of Jeffrey David Cox with its usual zeal. Mr. Cox is serving a sentence of life plus 50 years for allegedly being part of a duo that abducted and murdered a 63-year-old Richmond woman named Ilouise Cooper in 1990. Mr. Cox was convicted and sentenced following a one-day trial. Prosecutors then believed he had carried out the crime along with a man named Billy Madison, who has never been charged. Yet Mr. Cox -- who had no criminal record prior to his arrest for murder -- has steadfastly maintained he had no involvement in the crime; he refused even after his conviction to give evidence against Mr. Madison in exchange for leniency, claiming he knew nothing about the murder.
The record of the case offers little reason for confidence in Mr. Cox's guilt. Yet even after the FBI reopened the matter and federal authorities developed doubts about the conviction, the attorney general's office has labored to keep Mr. Cox in prison. Even when, earlier this year, the federal investigation led to the arrest of a third man -- Stephen Hood -- in connection with the same murder, the attorney general's office barely blinked. The state's rationale is that there were two murderers. Maybe they weren't the two that prosecutors originally believed -- maybe the theory under which Mr. Cox is rotting in prison is wrong. But it's at least theoretically possible that Messrs Hood and Cox were the two killers. And that possibility, however improbable, is enough to keep Virginia fighting. Earlier this summer, the attorney general's office urged the Virginia Supreme Court not to hear Mr. Cox's latest appeal.
Even as the attorney general's office tries to keep Mr. Cox locked up, prosecutors in the case against Mr. Hood are casting further doubt on Mr. Cox's guilt. This week, they filed a document containing findings of the FBI's investigation. The prosecutors report that in 1998 Mr. Madison told a witness that "he and Stephen Hood committed the Cooper murder and that Jeffrey Cox was innocent." They also claim that "a witness observed Stephen Hood the day after the murder with fresh scratch marks on his shoulder." Mr. Hood allegedly told this witness that a black woman had scratched him the previous night (Ms. Cooper was black, while all of the suspects are white). And while prosecutors never had any evidence of motive in Mr. Cox's case, they say investigators learned that Mr. Hood had been in a "heated dispute" with a person who lived across the hall from Mrs. Cooper and that "this individual had told Hood that he lived with his grandmother and acknowledged to law enforcement that he had ripped off Hood and his friend, Billy Madison, in a marijuana deal." Finally, prosecutors filed a motion asking the court "to exclude evidence of Cox's conviction" from the jury when the case goes to trial. The fact of the conviction, they argued, was not evidence but merely a "conclusion drawn by the Cox jury, based on evidence presented to them in 1991."
It is the attorney general's
job to defend convictions. But government lawyers have a duty to seek justice
as well. The attorney general's office told us yesterday that it has "no
knowledge" of these recent filings and has not received "any information
about the Hood case from the prosecutors." Before it takes another step
in defense of Mr. Cox's conviction, it has an obligation to seek information
that appears to grossly undercut the justice of its case.