False Confessions: Da' Ron Cox / Only evidence remaining against him is confession
Friday, September 01, 2006
By Cynthia Levy, Special to the Post-Gazette
In November 1996 Brian Roberts pointed an automatic weapon at a police officer and was arrested. He was carrying 34 rocks of crack cocaine. He walked free after telling police the gun and drugs belonged to Roland Cephas.
Mr. Cephas was busted and vowed retaliation.
Ten days later, as Mr. Roberts stood on Sterrett Street in Homewood, a man in a black coat, scull cap and blue jeans shot him twice, chased him into an alley, pumped two more bullets into him, pistol-whipped him and left him to die.
The officer who persuaded Mr. Roberts to snitch told homicide detectives that Mr. Cephas was a likely suspect. No one implicated Da'Ron Cox, 18, or even placed him at the scene.
Fourteen days later, a young man incarcerated at Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, in exchange for money and freedom, told police he saw Mr. Cox commit the murder. Police used the statement to extract a confession from the kid known on the streets as "Chicken."
Mr. Cox has said ever since that he didn't kill Mr. Roberts and never confessed. He is serving a life sentence.
Mr. Cox says he was interrogated from 7 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. without counsel while shackled to the ground. Police recorded only the final few minutes, so there is no record to confirm or refute Mr. Cox's account.
"I kept telling them I was with my girlfriend in Penn Hills and they kept telling me they knew I did it and that they had me red-handed," said Mr. Cox. His girlfriend said she spent Friday nights during that period with Mr. Cox but couldn't remember that specific evening.
City detectives Robert McCabe, now deceased, and Dennis Logan, now an investigator for the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office, took turns playing good cop, bad cop, Mr. Cox said.
Detective Logan refused to comment.
"They started telling me they knew I wasn't a violent person because they pulled my juvenile record and they knew I never carried a gun so [they told me] it would be real easy to get me off if I confessed," he said.
When Mr. Cox refused to admit the killing, he said, detectives told him they could make this into a "self-defense thing," charging him with manslaughter, which carries a minimum two-year sentence. He decided to cut his losses.
"When you live the lifestyle that I was living you become conditioned to do time. You know you'll eventually go to jail and I was just thinking two years and I'll put it behind me," he said.
The Shuman Center informant claimed he saw Mr. Cox shoot the victim at close range in the chest. In his "confession," Mr. Cox also told police he fired six shots into Mr. Robert's chest, but from a distance.
Mr. Roberts was shot in the back.
At the July 1997 trial, police denied manipulating the young Mr. Cox to get a confession. Detective McCabe could not account for the conflict between the physical evidence and the statements of both Mr. Cox and the informant.
On the witness stand, Mr. Cox denied involvement, claiming he confessed after hours of questioning because he was promised a short prison term if he did and was led to fear the death penalty if he didn't.
After a three-day trial, Mr. Cox was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
"When I heard the judge say I was guilty I was not surprised. There was a lady on the jury I made eye contact with. She nodded at me before they went to deliberate like everything would be OK, but when she came out crying, I just looked at my mom and said, 'That's how the cookie crumbles,' " said Cox.
After the trial, several men signed affidavits stating that they knew Mr. Cox had not been at the murder scene and that Mr. Roberts was killed because of his dispute with Mr. Cephas. Mr. Cephas himself was murdered in 1997.
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning denied an appeal at that point.
Then another man signed an affidavit swearing that the Shuman Center informant, the only eyewitness against Mr. Cox, had actually been with him at the time of the killing and could not have seen anything. The informant was gunned down in 1999.
Since then, yet another man has sworn that he saw Mr. Cephas kill Mr. Roberts.
Ten years later, Mr. Cox remains the sole surviving suspect in this string of retaliatory street gang killings. He says he had nothing to do with Mr. Robert's death or any of the others. The only remaining evidence against him, he says, is his own alleged confession.
"I just hope that one day someone will see that the whole situation was not right and lets me out," he says.
Mr. Cox's attorney is preparing a final appeal to federal court.
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