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Friends Wrongfully Imprisoned for Nearly Two Decades — Until the Innocence Project Won Their Freedom

Friends Wrongfully Imprisoned for Nearly Two Decades — Until the Innocence Project Won Their Freedom
ILLUSTRATION BY BRIAN STAUFFER

Obie Anthony and Reggie Cole grew up around the corner from one another in South Central. The Nine Deuce Hoover Crips, a huge black gang, recruited them when they were 11 or 12 — they're not sure because, as Cole admits, "We were always 'claiming.' We grew up right there."

In their teens, life was about hanging out with friends and getting into fights at school. "We were just young punk kids out on the street trying to do what we was doing, hustling fast cash with drugs — weed and stuff like that," Cole says. "That was it."

But when the two hell-raisers were 17 and 18, in March 1994, Mexican immigrant Felipe Gonzales Angeles, a young father of four, was gunned down during a botched robbery outside a brothel at 49th and Figueroa* streets. Angeles' friends, waiting for him in a nearby car, were shot at. Eyewitness John Jones — a pimp who managed the building — reported seeing three young black male robbers, two with guns, open fire.

In newspaper coverage, Miles Corwin of the Los Angeles Times reported the chilling audio caught by security cameras: "Give me your money ... all your money ... too slow ... kill him! Kill him!"

Jones told LAPD that one suspect limped away, possibly hit by a compatriot's stray bullet. Sure enough, that night two unidentified, young black men showed up at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital's emergency room, one with a heavily wrapped leg; they fled when the receiving nurse started asking questions.

When LAPD got an anonymous phone tip that "Baby Day Day," a 5 Deuce Hoover Crip, had "made the move at 49th and Fig" — an apparent reference to the murder at 49th and Figueroa — homicide detectives prepared "six-pack" photo lineups to show witnesses, including an MLK hospital guard and the pimp, Jones.

Jones chose both Cole and Anthony from the lineups, the only eyewitness to do so. Neither teen was a member of 5 Deuce, but they were members of another branch of Hoover Crips.

Jones' credibility should have made LAPD and the Los Angeles County district attorney far more wary, it later turned out. He'd killed a girlfriend and done time for it, and now he was facing 12 years in prison for pimping, so he needed a leniency deal.

"Jones said whatever they wanted him to say," Anthony says today. "He told three different stories by trial time. It was clear he was making it up as he went along."

Several weeks after the murder of Felipe Angeles, as Cole and Anthony nervously sat in jail facing an unrelated carjacking charge, LAPD detectives arrested them for the Angeles murder. Police found an old gunshot wound on Cole's leg, but the two teens insisted they had been home the night of the murder, nursing hangovers from a birthday party.

Curiously, LAPD never tied any physical evidence to Cole or Anthony despite the numerous fingerprints and footprints found at the crime scene. "You would think they would reconsider, but they didn't," Anthony says.

His attorney, Paige Kaneb, alleges that LAPD was "blinded by tunnel vision." But in 1995, a jury* gave them life. Lead LAPD detective Marcella Winn did not return calls seeking comment.

Years later, after the two friends had spent nearly half their lives in state prison, the pimp, Jones, would testify that his earlier claims were false. He had not seen the killer's faces. He'd merely heard about the incident from his daughters.

When the jury sent Cole and Anthony to prison for life, they did not know that District Attorney Gil Garcetti's office was going to decrease Jones' pending 12-year felony sentence for pimping, granting him three years' probation for helping ID Anthony and Cole.

The two scared young friends, now murder convicts, were sent to a place even more violent than South Central, circa 1994 — Calipatria State Prison near the Salton Sea, where such monsters as Hillside Strangler Angelo Buono were housed. The two men would still be there today, averting their eyes from rapes and fending off big, violent bodybuilders with nicknames like El Diablo, if not for the fact that the thinly built Cole knifed a prisoner to death in 2000 — a big, violent bodybuilder named El Diablo, in fact.

Cole contended that his shank attack against El Diablo was self-defense, but pled no contest to voluntary manslaughter. For nearly a decade, as the California Innocence Project team fought to get his first homicide vacated, the only human touch he received was from guards slapping handcuffs on his wrists when he exited his cell.

Ironically, had Cole not killed El Diablo, an act that elevated Cole's case to the death-penalty level, "Nobody would have represented him," explains Christopher Plourd, Cole's attorney, who volunteered with the California Innocence Project in San Diego. Plourd, who represented Phil Spector during his murder trial, led the team that took up Cole's case, convincing a judge that Cole had been wronged in his initial murder conviction as a teen.

 

"Without that situation, we wouldn't have a leg to stand on," Cole recalls. "Both of our appeals were over with. We were supposed to sit in there and rot."

Hundreds of convicted murderers in the United States have been freed by Innocence Projects and similar groups. Some are found factually innocent via DNA or other evidence. Others, like Anthony and Cole, are determined to be victims of incompetent defense attorneys or biased cops or prosecutors.

Proposition 34, on the Nov. 6 ballot, would repeal California's death penalty. If passed, it would retroactively apply to more than 725 people on death row in California, giving them life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Recent polls show California voters leaning against this change, with voter-rich L.A. County opposed.

Among death penalty cases in California, Reggie Cole's offered an unusual and troubling wrinkle: Was an innocent South Central teenager wrongly put in prison, where he had to kill in order to save his own skin?

The Innocence Project in San Diego appointed two attorneys, Plourd and Eduardo Rivera, to represent Cole. The seasoned lawyers found that the trajectory of the fatal bullet that ripped into Felipe Angeles' back probably didn't come from street level, where the pimp said Anthony and Cole attacked Angeles, but from a floor or two higher, and that the unidentified third man may have been the gunman. Most importantly, star witness Jones was forced to admit he didn't witness the murder.

In early 2010, a judge freed Reggie Cole. Then one year ago, Compton Superior Court Judge Kelvin Filer freed his friend Obie Anthony. Last month, Anthony and his fiancée, Denise Merchant, went to pick up their marriage certificate — and wed on the spot. He was dressed in a suit and tie for a speaking engagement, she wore skinny jeans and a blouse. "We were matching," Anthony says. "It was one of those fun and spontaneous things."

Reggie Cole is full of joy as he holds his baby girl in his arms. She tugs on his glasses. "I sat in a cell 17 years wanting a child," he says. "She's what I fought all those years for."

In 1979, Obie Anthony, then 5, moved from St. Louis to East Los Angeles with his mother, stepfather and older sisters. They lived in a "bitty" two-bedroom home with their German shepherd, Max, for about four years before moving to 47th Street and Broadway. In junior high, Anthony joined the Crips and became known as "Lil Day Day."

"My circumstances had already made it possible to be in the streets like that," Anthony recalls.

After his stepfather died, Anthony's mother went into a tailspin for the better part of a decade. With his mom addicted to drugs, Anthony remembers, he resorted to stealing food. "It was a struggle coming up living in the inner city," he says. "I didn't have the wherewithal then to make the requisite choices."

Anthony now lives in the high desert town of Apple Valley with his new wife, childhood sweetheart Denise Merchant, who helped him survive his nightmare years at Calipatria by reconnecting with him when he was behind bars. Long before his conviction was overturned, she proposed to him.

Dressed in blue jeans and an untucked-in, white dress shirt, the goateed Anthony wears his hair short, with a stud in his left ear. He dreams of becoming a criminal defense investigator, while Cole wants to become a paralegal who works with advocates for the wrongly convicted.

Cole grew up in what he describes as a "typical home in the ghetto," the fourth of five children, raised by his mother and stepfather near 98th and Hoover streets. His older brother, also in the Crips, was murdered at 15 in a drive-by during L.A.'s bloody street wars of three decades past. His killer was never caught.

"You going to be where you from," Cole says. "My whole situation was dire from the beginning."

In the Crips, he was known as "Gumby" for his goofy attitude.

"I was no angel, but we weren't murderers," he says. "We had the opportunity to come out of that crap and be something."

When Cole was sent away for murder, he was a lanky 18-year-old, 5 feet 11 and 140 pounds. He's now in his late 30s and the father of an 8-month-old girl.

Tall and still thin, his eyes show signs of weariness. His plaid, button-up, short-sleeve shirt reveals star tattoos on his forearms — plus "N" and "D" to symbolize Nine Deuce, and the scripted names of four dead friends. He has two scars over his right eyebrow and wears gold Versace glasses and a stud in his left ear. He lives with his sister in Carson, where he tried his hand at selling real estate.

 

Anthony had spent a few months in Juvenile Hall for a breaking-and-entering charge, but he wasn't prepared for hard time at Calipatria. "I was devastated going off into a world I didn't know nothing about," he recalls. "It was a scary situation for me."

Prison was harder on Reggie Cole, however. He had to fight for his life.

Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County has a population of about 5,000 men, with 20 officers watching 1,000 inmates in the yard at any given time — a 50-to-1 ratio. To Cole, Calipatria was "reverse society," a hopeless and dehumanizing experience. "Right is wrong and wrong is right in there," he explains.

Seeing people being raped and killed in prison forever changed Cole. "They are going to give us some money and say, 'Go away,' " he says incredulously, of a state program he hopes to tap, which reimburses the wrongly convicted. "It's not about the dollar amount. There's nothing they can do or say."

Vulnerable because of his slim build and lack of ruthlessness, Cole faced the ultimate inmate's nightmare on Nov. 28, 2000. As he tells it, bodybuilder Eddie Eugene Clark, a shot-caller known as El Diablo, whom Cole had considered his "homeboy," came at him with a shank and slashed his neck. Another inmate witnessed the altercation.

El Diablo had for a month been nursing a hard-core grudge against Cole, ever since an alarm had signaled for inmates to drop to the ground, Plourd says. El Diablo's cellmate was caught tossing aside a glove containing a knife and, according to Plourd, El Diablo wanted Cole to take the blame, since he was serving life without parole anyway. Cole refused.

"There's no way you can opt out of prison politics," Cole says now. "If you even try, you become a victim."

Cole realized, "I was going to kill him, or he was going to kill me. Contrary to what people were talking about, that was my older homie, and I had a lot of love and respect for that dude."

About 15 minutes after Clark slashed his neck, Cole took his chance. Prosecutor George Castello says Cole jumped over the back of a correctional officer who was frisking El Diablo on his way in from the yard; Cole fatally stabbed him.

For nearly a decade after he'd killed Clark, Cole was trapped in a solitary cell, 15 steps across and 12 from side to side. "It's strange being out here again because all I know is prison," Cole says now. "I don't see anything the same way."

When the California Innocence Project took Cole's case in 2002, it requested the assistance of San Diego–based defense attorney Plourd, an expert in the use of forensic evidence to solve cold cases. In his 30 years in the field, Plourd had represented a dozen death row inmates, as well as Spector during the music legend's 2007 trial.

Plourd wears rimless glasses and is clean-shaven, with reddish brown hair and wisps of white at his temples. He now presides over criminal cases as a Superior Court judge in Imperial County. But for five years, attorney Plourd prepared for Cole's second murder trial.

In doing so, he uncovered what he describes as prejudicial actions and sloppy work by both LAPD and the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office in the original murder of Felipe Angeles in South Central.

The case was investigated by Marcella Winn, an LAPD detective at 77th Street Division. It was Winn's first homicide as primary investigator, paired with now-retired partner Pete Razanskas, a veteran of almost 15 years. Anthony alleges that Winn "was more out to prove herself and not who committed the crime."

Plourd's team, in reinvestigating the slaying of Felipe Angeles, found key missteps by LAPD:

John Jones' daughters, not "eyewitness" Jones, were the eyewitnesses to Angeles' killing, a fact LAPD never uncovered. Jones had never seen the killers' faces. When this evidence came before him during Anthony's appeal, Compton Superior Court Judge Kelvin Filer noted, "To wit, [the daughters] were eyewitnesses to the incident and had information which could have impeached John Jones' testimony."

Forensic pathology expert Dr. Harry Bonnell determined that the bullet to the back that killed Angeles traveled through him at a downward trajectory of about 40 degrees. Plourd says, "The person who shot the gun that killed the victim had to be on the second floor or roof." LAPD had insisted the fatal shot came from the young black men at street level.

Information relevant to the case that was published by Times reporter Corwin, author of The Killing Season: A Summer Inside an LAPD Homicide Division, included his experiences shadowing Winn and Razanskas; it was left out of LAPD's police report. Plourd obtained the suppressed evidence and lambasted a "shoddy" LAPD investigation.

 

In his testimony during Anthony's 2011 appeal, John Jones said LAPD had informed him he'd picked out the right people from the six-packs, suggesting that detectives had already decided Cole and Anthony were the killers.

Deputy DA Castello today says of the plea deal given to Jones after he'd fingered the two teens, "I didn't arrange any deals for him to testify."

But LAPD wrote two letters requesting leniency regarding Jones' 12-year pimping sentence, which was slashed to probation. When Judge Filer ruled in favor of Obie Anthony in 2011, Filer said Jones had been given a "sweetheart deal" for his testimony.

"From the very beginning, this whole thing was a setup," Cole says. "There's nothing we could do about it."

But Plourd's relentless investigative team did do something.

On Oct. 24, 2007, at the El Centro Courthouse in Imperial County, Judge Donal B. Donnelly struck down Reggie Cole's old South Central murder conviction, agreeing that he was a victim of ineffective counsel, which amounted to a denial of Cole's Sixth Amendment right to representation.

Donnelly determined that Cole's public defender had failed to investigate the possibility of a third shooter as the murderer, had failed to hire a forensic expert, had failed to interview all potential witnesses, had failed to investigate the pimp's credibility and had failed to interview the pimp's daughters.

Donnelly did not find Cole innocent, but he held that the outcome of Cole's first murder trial might have been different, given better counsel.

"It took a man of courage to make the decision [Donnelly] made, because he honestly didn't have to," Cole says. "Nobody thought he was going to rule the way he did."

In the separate prison homicide, Cole later pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter for killing El Diablo, and got credit for more than 3,600 days of time served — nearly 10 years. Finally sprung from solitary confinement, he was released on probation on May 15, 2010.

"If it wasn't for them charging me with the death penalty, I would still be in prison," Cole says of his twist of fate.

And so would his friend Anthony.

A single guard watches through the mesh fencing of about eight jail cages when federal investigators like Deborah Crawford meet with inmates sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole. A small table is all that stands between her and her clients on death row.

In a gray, ribbed sweater, black pencil skirt and matching pumps, Crawford appears both professional and motherly. Her dark eyes give the impression of thoughtful observation.

In her work for the Capital Habeas Unit of the Los Angeles Federal Public Defender's Office, she says, "It's very interesting to see the journey that has taken a guy from his mother's arms to prison."

She is tasked with finding any mitigating factors that could lessen a murder defendant's culpability or reduce his sentence — but not, usually, with finding factors that could establish innocence.

Unlike Cole, whose eligibility for the death penalty turned him into a cause, Anthony was sitting on the main line at Calipatria and facing poor odds of getting out. But in 2008, the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) in Santa Clara took on Anthony's murder conviction in the South Central slaying, not long after Cole's San Diego–based Innocence Project team successfully got his conviction vacated in the same killing.

Crawford was asked by NCIP to serve as primary investigator in Anthony's case. "If we don't get this innocent kid out ... it's over for him," Crawford remembers thinking. She had to find new evidence to get his case reheard, and she did — preparing the pimp's signed declaration that he selected Anthony's picture based on how the six-pack was handed to him. The pimp recanted his identification.

Crawford and her team of Loyola Law School students weren't the only people who decided to stand behind Obie Anthony. When Denise Merchant heard that her childhood crush and long-ago friend was in prison for life, her tears flowed. "Oh, it hurt so bad," she remembers. "I really didn't believe it."

Anthony used to ride his scooter around their neighborhood and flash her smiles. "I knew that he liked me," Merchant recalls. The two kissed once in their youth. They reconnected in 2008, with thick glass between them, on the first of Merchant's many visits. "All those feelings from that day came back at once," she says. "We're soul mates."

On Oct. 15, 2009, Merchant got down on one knee. "She proposed to me in front of the whole, entire visiting room at prison," Anthony recalls. Soon after, he proposed back.

 

For three and a half years, Merchant drove 362 miles round trip every weekend to Calipatria State Prison; she sent him letters smelling of her perfume. "I was going to be there regardless because I love him," she says. For her, at least, "It really did go by fast."

Lead investigator Crawford and two lawyers at the Northern California Innocence Project, Linda Starr and Paige Kaneb, needed to convince just one man — Judge Kelvin Filer in Compton Superior Court — that Anthony had been wrongly convicted. But in more than 18 years on the bench, he had never overturned a conviction.

Filer is a poet and inventor of flavored coffee filters, who, during his lawyering days, won a unanimous verdict from the California Supreme Court allowing defendants to wear civilian clothes at trial. On a momentous day in late September 2011, Filer stepped into his courtroom in his hometown of Compton and reminisced to the audience about his resilient father, well-known Los Angeles civil rights activist Maxcy Filer. His dad had taken the California Bar exam twice yearly for 24 years — until he passed it.

Filer spoke of his father's belief that you "never give up" to 37-year-old Anthony. Then Filer exonerated Anthony. It was 503 days after Reggie Cole had been released from prison.

"Based upon the law, I felt an injustice had been done by this man's conviction," Filer said recently. He held that Anthony was not guilty of the 1994 murder but did not find him factually innocent. "Normally only juries make factual findings of innocence," Filer says. "They are very rarely found."

Deputy District Attorney Scott Collins, who spent a year working to uphold Anthony's conviction, says, "We looked at it and were convinced that we had the right guy."

But Filer says, "There is no way this case should be retried. In a strange way, the system still works. There was an avenue where this case could be overturned."

Anthony was released from a holding facility at downtown's Twin Towers jail on the evening of Oct. 4, 2011. Outside, he held up lawyer Kaneb's hand and said, "The system is what got me out," recalls Loyola law student Jeff Ingram, who helped draft Anthony's habeas petition. Ingram says, "From the get-go, there was horrible information put in [regarding his case], and it took us 17 years to figure out the correct information so the system could really work."

Cole, now writing his memoirs in suburban L.A., is angry about that system, saying, "They pretty much took everything from me. My nana passed away a month before I got out."

He asks, "How do you begin when you can't trust nobody? I'm still looking for answers."

His father was the first black police officer in Marin County, but Cole so distrusts cops now that he plans to discourage his baby girl, Jordan, from ever relying on them. "You know how you teach your kid to call 911 — my daughter will never touch a nine or a one ever," he says firmly.

Cole intends to be the first to tell his daughter his story, and to insist that she stay on the straight and narrow, because "I believe everybody has to be responsible for his actions and deeds."

Since Cole is on parole for his voluntary manslaughter of El Diablo in 2000, he must stay within a 50-mile radius and undergo regular psychological evaluations. "They're not going to let me off, because it's not in their interest to," he says with disdain. "They've had me on a leash this whole time." Next May, he should finally be let off.

Six months ago, he couldn't shake the sensation that "I don't feel like I belong here." Tears well up in his eyes. "I feel like they're going to take me back."

But now, he says, "I've learned to relax a bit. The world ain't going to end tomorrow."

Still, he says, finding steady work is nearly impossible. "Nobody is going to hire me in any type of workplace. I got multiple murders on my jacket," he says. "How are you going to explain that away? No matter how many times they go and read an article that says I was exonerated, I didn't do anything, you still going to have those people who say it was a technicality, he probably just got off by accident.

"Why can't it be what it is?"

Cole, who passed his years in solitary in part by reading legal precedent, wants to attend law school so he can challenge the system on behalf of others — but he may be barred because he pled no contest to voluntary manslaughter.

Neither man has yet received state restitution. Each can get up to $100 per day served during a wrongful incarceration, according to the California Penal Code, if they prove to the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board that they did not intentionally contribute to their arrests or convictions and that they have been harmed.

 

Cole says, "I'm not a forgiving person. ... I don't understand how a person cannot be bitter."

He has sued the City of Los Angeles and the two LAPD homicide detectives who arrested him, saying, "They are reinvestigating this case because we're suing for money now."

DA Castello scoffs, "We have a murderer walking the streets. Here's a man with blood on his hands, who's hoping he's gonna get rich. It's grotesque."

Obie Anthony is taking a different route to reimagining his life, but he, too, is focused on activism.

Anthony studied for the high school equivalency test and received his GED in 2008. "He used the time to better himself," Kaneb says. "He's a really great guy with a big heart. He's someone who could be doing good with his life."

Adam Grant, a senior postdoctoral fellow for Loyola Law School's Project for the Innocent, says, "Obie is somebody who had a very tough childhood, who was dealing with terrible things before he even came across this horrendous misfortune." His voice trembles as he says, "He really had no breaks growing up and must have developed a really strong moral compass. ... It's extraordinary how patient and hopeful he's been."

When Anthony was about to be released from Twin Towers Correctional Facility last October, his fiance became jittery, experiencing "the longest hours ever.

"Now he's here to drive me crazy," Denise Merchant jokes, sitting by Anthony in a colorful, strapless jumpsuit with dark curls falling to her midback. As the two exchange a glance, Anthony's face lights up with a grin. They are in the midst of planning their wedding reception.

Anthony has launched into public speaking as a justice advocate for Death Penalty Focus, a nonprofit seeking to abolish capital punishment. He also recently got a job loading bottles on a conveyer belt for a household manufacturing company near his home.

His dream is a steady job that enables him to support his family while he trains to become an investigator, ideally to work alongside Crawford in the Federal Public Defender's Office. "I want to continue to help those individuals who helped me," he explains.

Among the many problems, he says, is that when people are exonerated, they are released without any financial support to stabilize them in a world they no longer recognize: "No health care, no dental, no anything."

Still friends, the two men want to make the most of their futures, to honor those who took on their cases, and to honor their families and each other. "We keep each other grounded and focused," Anthony says.

"We're not the first and we're not going to be the last," Cole adds. "This situation is going to happen to someone else."

*A previous version of this article erroneously stated that the murder was at Hoover and 49th. It was actually at Figueroa and 49th. Also, in 1995 a jury gave the two men life, not a judge.   California Innocence Project San Diego headquarters

California Innocence Project Northern California

 

Obie Anthony and Denise Merchant just got married."She proposed to me in front of the whole visiting room," he says.

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