LOS ANGELES (CN) – The trial of the man who prosecutors say terrorized black women over three decades as the “Grim Sleeper” serial killer began Tuesday, six years after he was charged.
Defendant Lonnie Franklin, 63, looked almost unassuming as he appeared in court dressed in a pale blue dress shirt and dark blue pants. A 12-member jury will decide the death penalty case, which is slated to last several months.
As disturbing police and autopsy images of his victims were projected on a large screen in the courtroom, Franklin spent much of the hearing upright in his chair, staring straight ahead, even as gasps and groans occasionally emanated from the gallery.
Prosecutors have charged Franklin with the first-degree murder of 10 women and the attempted murder of another. But people in the South Central community where he lived believe there could be dozens more victims.
In her opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman described Franklin as a predator who took advantage of the crack-cocaine epidemic of the mid-1980s and early 1990s to target black sex workers.
“The evidence will tell the story of a serial killer who stalked the streets of South LA,” Silverman said, noting that women addicted to the drug would be “willing to give up anything to acquire” it.
“This was the perfect opportunity for someone to prey on women,” Silverman said.
Jurors were shown gruesome police and autopsy photographs of the 10 victims, including 15-year-old Princess Berthomieux and 18-year-old Alice Monique Alexander.
Franklin is accused of shooting and/or strangling his victims.
An image showed victim Henrietta Wright in an alley with a light green blanket over her. The killer had used a long sleeve shirt as a gag, Silverman said, and she had two gunshot wounds to the chest.
Another victim, Bernita Sparks, was found in a dumpster in 1987 by police. An autopsy revealed that she had been shot at close range in the chest, strangled and had blunt-force trauma to the back of her head.
An eleventh victim, Enietra Washington survived an attack and sexual assault after prosecutors say Franklin picked her up in an orange Pinto in 1988, sexually assaulted her, shot her in the chest and then took a photo of her with a Polaroid camera before pushing her out of the moving car.
Firearm experts at the LAPD were able to determine that Washington had been shot with the same .25-caliber handgun as nine other victims.
Most of the women tested positive for cocaine and alcohol in toxicology tests.
Authorities arrested and charged Franklin six years ago after confirming that his DNA profile matched that of the killer and tailing him for several months. A detective disguised as a busboy collected a half-eaten pizza from Franklin during a party at a John’s Incredible Pizza restaurant on July 5, 2010.
A search warrant for Franklin’s South Central residence uncovered 800 items of evidence, including $17,000 in cash and 10 firearms.
A .25-caliber Titan pistol recovered from the house matched the bullet used to shoot and kill Franklin’s last known victim, Janecia Peters, who was killed on New Year’s Day 2007, Silverman said.
During a police interview, detectives showed Franklin images of the deceased victims but he claimed he had not had any contact with them, the prosecutor said. She noted that Franklin had laughed and made light of the photos of the dead women, calling one woman “fat” and another “butt ugly.”
Silverman said that DNA and other evidence would prove he is the killer.
Franklin’s attorney Seymour Amster reserved his opening statement until after the prosecution rests its case.
Margaret Prescod, founder of Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, was in the courtroom on Tuesday morning. Outside, she said she had founded the group in 1986 after seeing a news report about 11 serial murders in South LA. Like many in the community, she was outraged by the authorities’ failure to warn the public that a killer was on the loose.
Law enforcement had called the sex worker victims NHI, meaning “No Humans Involved,” Prescod added.
She was disappointed that Silverman had focused her opening statements on crack cocaine and prostitution, noting that not all the victims had drug problems or worked as sex workers.
“Quite a lot was made of the crack epidemic in LA. I couldn’t quite get why that was the case – that the entire community had to be put in that lens before the jury,” Prescod said. “In the coalition we have always made the case that we have to look at the victims as human beings – as somebody’s child, as somebody’s mother. Because if they’re painted as a kind of caricature it’s easy to dehumanize them.”
Prescod held up a picture of the 10 deceased women.
“Let’s say if they were blond, blue-eyed college students who had been smoking some dope. Do you think this would be the portrayal of them?” Prescod said.
She said that she had fought hard to keep the case in the public eye and hoped for justice. But she noted that the Grim Sleeper could have claimed many more victims.
“What about all these other women that he hasn’t been charged with. Where are they? Who killed some of these women? Up to a hundred are believed victims of the serial killer,” Prescod said.
Other victims include Debra Jackson, Henrietta Wright, Barbara Ware, Mary Lowe, Lachrica Jefferson and Valerie McCorvey.
- Frisco Task Force Takes|Aim at Public Corruption
- Quest for Judge’s Racist Email Hits Judicial Snag