Justice at last: Victims’ relations comfort each other after the verdict
Nearly 30 years after the first victim’s body was found sprawled in a South Los Angeles alley, the man authorities dubbed the Grim Sleeper serial killer was found guilty Thursday of a series of slayings that spanned more than two decades.
With the verdicts, Lonnie David Franklin Jr., a former Los Angeles police garage attendant and city garbage collector, officially becomes one of California’s most prolific and enduring serial killers. The murder charges at his trial spanned deaths from 1985 to 2007, with a gap of more than 13 years that earned him his ominous nickname.
After a day and a half of deliberations, jurors found Franklin guilty of 10 counts of murder in the killings of nine women and a 15-year-old girl. Jurors also found Franklin guilty of one count of attempted murder.
The trial lasted nearly three months. The victims were all young and black, with some leading troubled lives during the chaotic 1980s in South L.A. The dead were left along a corridor in the Manchester Square neighborhood. Their partially clothed or naked bodies, some decomposing, were found amid the filth and garbage of alleyways. All were left without identification, and each was initially labeled Jane Doe.
The courtroom audience remained mostly silent as the clerk read the 11 guilty verdicts, but with each one another section of spectators would erupt in tears.
The daughter of victim Henrietta Wright, her chin in the air, nodded slowly as the clerk read the guilty verdict in her mother’s killing, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Franklin, 63, remained completely still except for his right foot bouncing quickly up and down. As the verdicts were recited, he stopped and remained still, his eyes fixed on the clerk as she read.
Before the verdicts were read, Porter Alexander and his wife Mary, whose daughter Alicia Alexander was killed in 1988, interlocked their fingers. Mary rocked with her eyes closed, tears dripping into her lap as she sat waiting. Porter clenched his other hand in a fist.
As they heard the verdict in their daughter’s killing, their hands clasped more tightly. Porter opened his fist.
Franklin’s fate will be determined in the next phase of the trial, when jurors hear evidence to help them decide whether he should be executed or sentenced to life in prison without parole. Prosecutors are expected to present evidence that Franklin killed at least five more women for which he wasn’t charged.
“They suffered from the same frailties and the same imperfections that all humans do, and they had the same hopes and the same dreams for their futures that we all have,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Beth Silverman told jurors during closing arguments in the trial. “None of them deserved to be brutally dumped like trash as if their lives had no meaning.”
More than 1,000 photographs were found in the home of Lonnie Franklin Jr., the serial killer known as the Grim Sleeper. Some were released to the public to help identify the women. Thirty-five women remain unidentified.
The deaths of the women, some of whom were drug addicts or worked as prostitutes, failed to elicit the same alarm that put Los Angeles on high alert during rampages of other prolific serial killers in the Southland, such as the Hillside Stranglers or Richard Ramirez, the so-called Night Stalker.
The slayings in the mid- to late ’80s coincided with a surge of homicides in South L.A. linked to the crack cocaine epidemic. In addition, several other serial killers were operating in the same area in those years. Michael Hughes was later convicted of killing seven women, Chester Turner of 14 women and a fetus. Both are on California’s death row.
In the case of the Grim Sleeper, the victims’ deaths would not be connected for decades, and police kept the slayings quiet despite suspicions that a serial killer was stalking young black women.
Photo: Nick Ut/AP
A billboard in 2010 showing that the suspect alleged to be the Grim Sleeper had been arrested near a freeway in Compton.
That decision led to outrage and condemnation from many who came to believe that the killer was able to continue as a result of police indifference.
After years of waiting for justice, families stood before a phalanx of cameras Thursday afternoon and recalled their slain relatives.
“It’s closure, we’ve been waiting 30 years. We needed this,” said Irene Ephriam, the niece of Henrietta Wright.
Prosecutors refused to comment after the verdicts were reached, saying the day was for victims only.
“He doesn’t value life,” said Samara Herard, the sister of 15-year-old victim Princess Berthomieux. “I hope that justice will be served. All I’m worried about now is her and getting justice served. He deserved to be found guilty.”
Herard said it was painful to listen to details of the killings during the trial.
“You don’t want to hear what happened, at parts I had to hold my head down and close my eyes,” Herard said. “I didn’t want to see that because you want to remember — you want to remember that sweet little girl that had her whole life ahead of her and it was taken from her.”
Prosecutors argued that Franklin was connected to all of the 10 slain victims, as well as an 11th who survived, by DNA evidence, ballistics or both. Franklin’s DNA was found on seven victims.
Retired LAPD Det. Dennis Kilcoyne, head of the department’s Grim Sleeper task force, said the verdict was an “emotional one” for him.
“These families … it’s not a club you want to belong to,” he said.
The face of evil: Lonnie David Franklin Jr
A gun found in Franklin’s home was used to kill one woman, according to court testimony. Police criminalists testified that bullets from eight other victims — seven of whom were killed and another who survived — were fired from another weapon that was never recovered. Franklin’s DNA was on the bodies of three of those women, according to testimony.
“The evidence in this case is the voice of the victims who can no longer speak for themselves,” Silverman said during the trial.
Franklin did not testify. The defense argued that other men could have committed the slayings, pointing to DNA not belonging to Franklin that was found on some of the women’s bodies, their clothes and the crime scenes.
In his closing argument, defense attorney Seymour Amster suggested that a relative or an associate of Franklin’s who called him “uncle” was responsible. He seized on testimony by Enietra Washington, believed to be the Grim Sleeper’s only survivor, who told jurors that she was raped and shot by an assailant nearly 30 years ago. In court, she identified Franklin as her attacker.
Amster pointed to one account Washington gave police in which she said she accepted a ride from a “youngster” in his 20s who told her he needed to make a stop at his uncle’s house to pick up some money. Washington testified that the house where he stopped was Franklin’s home on 81st Street. After the stop, she said, she was sexually assaulted and shot.
Amster said Washington’s description of her attacker did not match Franklin, who would have been 36 at the time.
“It is our position that there is a nephew, or a youngster, who is involved and did each and every murder,” the defense attorney told jurors. He did not name a possible suspect.The prosecutor mocked that argument as a “grand conspiracy theory,” noting that Amster had waited to raise it until the last day of trial. Silverman pointed out that Washington told police that her attacker took photographs of her. Police later found a photograph of Washington in the wall of Franklin’s garage, Silverman told jurors.
Ballistics tests showed that Washington was shot by the same firearm used to kill seven victims in the case, the prosecutor argued.
The victims, in the order they died, were: Debra Jackson, 29; Wright, 35; Barbara Ware, 23; Bernita Sparks, 25; Mary Lowe, 26; Lachrica Jefferson, 22; Alexander, 18; Berthomieux, 15; Valerie McCorvey, 35; and Janecia Peters, 25.
With the trial now set to enter the penalty phase, some relatives offered very different views on what should happen to the killer.
Through tears, Porter Alexander said the killing of his daughter had “crippled” him.
“He took a limb from me, something I’ll never get back,” the father said. “Every time I look, she’s missing. What goes around, came around. Now its his turn. Eye for an eye.”
Ephriam said she was the one who had to identify her aunt’s body.
“I am praying for Lonnie and I forgive him, but he didn’t give them a chance to do that,” she said.
The trial highlighted the difficulty authorities encountered in identifying the perpetrator until breakthroughs in DNA science helped detectives zero in on Franklin.
Police began to connect the victims after Peters’ body was found in a garbage bag in a dumpster in 2007. DNA taken from the scene matched evidence from two earlier slayings, prompting investigators to begin looking for DNA matches with killings from the 1980s and more recent deaths up to the early 2000s.
Detectives, however, did not know to whom the DNA belonged.
In 2008, officials checked DNA taken from state prisoners but didn’t find a match.
A year later, then-state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown approved a new technique called a “familial search” that allowed officials to check whether a crime suspect’s DNA partly matched that of anyone in the state’s offender DNA database.
Another check produced a partial match to Franklin’s son, whose DNA had been taken when he was arrested in 2008 and charged with firearm and drug offenses.
Investigators focused their efforts on the elder Franklin and launched a surveillance operation.
Jurors were shown a video of an undercover LAPD detective posing as a busboy at a Buena Park pizza restaurant where Franklin was attending a child’s birthday party in 2010. The detective could be seen retrieving a half-eaten slice of pizza, a fork, two napkins, two plastic cups and a piece of chocolate cake from Franklin.
The items were used to analyze his DNA — which matched genetic material found at some of the killing sites and the bodies of some of the women.
The next day, Franklin was arrested and authorities launched a search of his green house on 81st Street. There, investigators found inside a dresser drawer a .25-caliber semiautomatic handgun. It was the same weapon, two criminalists testified, that was used to shoot Peters.
After the verdicts were read Thursday, Margaret Prescod, the head of Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, said the convictions brought some closure for families, but that more work needs to be done for South L.A.
“We know that a lot of the conditions that drew some of these women to become victims are still out there,” Prescod said. “We’re getting the message that our lives don’t count.”
Prescod thanked Kilcoyne for his dedication to the victims, but said the LAPD still had to learn its “lesson” from the case.