Most highly anticipated trials in Los Angeles — O.J., Phil Spector — take on a carnival-like atmosphere. The Grim Sleeper trial, on the other hand, promises to be something quite different. It will be grim, it will be hard to watch, it will be depressing. And it will be a journey back to 1980s South L.A., when crime was raging and crack cocaine flooded the streets.
Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman delivered her opening remarks today in the long-delayed trial of Lonnie Franklin Jr. Franklin stands accused of killing 10 women and attempting to murder one more, in a spate of grizzly murders that became known as the Grim Sleeper killings, a reference to an apparent 13-year hiatus.
All 11 of Franklin's alleged victims were young, African-American women (six were in their 20s, three in their 30s, one was 18 and one was 15). Most, according to Silverman, were heavy cocaine users, and many had turned to prostitution.
“[Their] addiction caused these women to be extremely vulnerable,” Silverman said in her opening statement. “This was a perfect opportunity for someone who knew the streets and alleyways by heart.
Someone who knew where the drug-addicted women and prostitutes would congregate. … It was the perfect time for a serial killer to roam the streets of Los Angeles.”
The seven women who were killed between 1985 and 1988 were all found shot to death with the same .25-caliber automatic weapon. Their bodies were discovered in alleys and in dumpsters, without identification, covered with debris — an old mattress, a piece of carpet, a trash bag — “dumped like trash,” Silverman said.
Dozens of family members were in the audience for the trial’s first day. Many were visibly disturbed as Silverman showed, on a projector, graphic photographs of the murdered women as they were found. Some of the family members could be heard sobbing as Silverman talked.
In November 1988, a 30-year-old woman named Enietra Washington was offered a ride, in an orange Pinto, by a man she says was Franklin. He told her he needed to make a stop, parked on a residential street (the street where, according to prosecutors, Franklin himself lived), returned, started driving again and, without warning, pulled out a gun and shot Washington in the chest. According to Silverman, he then sexually assaulted her, took a Polaroid photograph of her and finally threw her out of his moving car.
Miraculously, Washington survived. She will testify at Franklin’s trial, which is expected to last three months. The sole surviving victim, according to Silverman, "provides a sort of blueprint for what happened to victims who can’t speak."
LAPD set up a task force in 2007 to investigate three murders — one in 2007, one in 2003, one in 2002 — that DNA evidence showed were all committed by the same man. The task force later linked the killer to the seven murders in the 1980s, as well as the rape and attempted murder of Washington.
Detectives ran the unique DNA profile against a database of convicted criminals. Though they found no exact match, they found a partial DNA match to Franklin’s son, Christopher Franklin. That helped the task force zero in on the elder Franklin as a suspect.
In order to get Franklin’s DNA, a detective went undercover as a busboy at John’s Incredible Pizza in Buena Park, where Franklin was attending a kids birthday party. The detective bussed Franklin’s plate, which included a half-eaten pizza crust, some cake and a fork. They say DNA retrieved from the plate matched the unique DNA profile of their suspect. They arrested Franklin soon after.
When LAPD searched Franklin’s house, they discovered more than 1,000 photographs of women, many with their eyes closed. One of the photographs was a Polaroid of Washington, in a car, appearing to have been shot in the chest.
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The other photographed women, some of whom LAPD is still trying to identify, have led to speculation that Franklin had more than 11 victims. But prosecutors won’t be allowed to mention the other women in the first phase of the trial.
If convicted, the 63-year-old Franklin could face the death penalty.
Throughout the proceedings, Franklin, a former city garbageman, sat stoically, staring straight ahead, his head still, seemingly uninterested in Silverman’s soliloquy. He wore a neatly pressed powder-blue shirt, a light blue tie his lawyer had brought for him, navy blue slacks, white socks and black slipover Vans with white letters reading “LA COUNTY.”
His attorney, Seymour Amster, opted not to give an opening statement, though he may still do so after the prosecution rests its case.