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Markhasev guilty in Ennis Cosby trial

By Linda DeutschAssociated Press Published: July 8, 1998 12:00 AM

It was his own words _ in jailhouse letters and in a taped phone conversation with a police informant _ that persuaded jurors to convict Markhasev of killing Ennis Cosby on a dark highway while he stopped to change a flat tire last year.

Cosby's family wept and hugged each other as the verdicts were read Tuesday after less than six hours of deliberations. The actor and comedian, who had avoided most of the trial, was not in the courtroom.

"The whole thing was open and shut, or at least close to that," said juror Joseph Burnett Vagner, 78. "In those letters he convicted himself."

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Markhasev, a 19-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, stared stonefaced at the jury as he was found guilty of murder in commission of an attempted robbery. As he walked out of the courthouse, he made an obscene gesture.

He also was found guilty of two special circumstance allegations: attempting to rob Cosby and using a firearm in the commission of attempted robbery.

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The jury's finding on all counts automatically mandates a life prison term with no possibility of parole at his Aug. 11 sentencing. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty, presumably because of the defendant's age.

Cosby had no comment. "The Cosby family is satisfied with the judicial process that has led to this conviction," Cosby spokesman David Brokaw said.

Markhasev's family arrived too late to hear the verdicts, but his mother, grandmother and a female cousin were allowed to see him later. Mother and son exchanged words in Russian, then the family left without comment, heads and faces draped in scarves.

Deputy Public Defender Henry Hall said he will appeal the conviction.

He said he didn't think the "celebrity" of the Cosby family had a direct impact on the trial, but he blamed the media for the conviction.

"I think it's very clear from the tenor of the coverage in the case that there was an expectation that Mr. Markhasev would be convicted, and it's hard to operate in a country with a presumption of innocence when the societal presumption or expectation is a conviction," he said.

Of his client's reaction to the life sentence, Hall said: "He's 19 years old and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how he feels about that."

Cosby, 27, a vacationing graduate student from Columbia University, was shot Jan. 16, 1997, while changing the flat on a dark road near Bel-Air. Markhasev was arrested nearly two months later.

Prosecutor Anne Ingalls claimed Markhasev was a member of the Mexican mafia, a feared prison gang, and she showed jurors a series of jailhouse letters, including one with the comment: "It was a robbery gone bad."

There also was a profanity-laced tape of a phone conversation between Markhasev and a prison pal in which the defendant seemed frantic and worried about talking on public phone lines. He adamantly denied knowing anything about the Cosby killing.

Cosby was shot on his way to meet an acquaintance, Stephanie Crane, who testified that Cosby called and said he had a flat tire. She drove to his location and used her car's headlights to illuminate his mother's Mercedes-Benz while he changed the tire.

Nearby, three people had stopped their car near a public telephone, prosecutors said; one of them was Markhasev, who had served time in a juvenile correctional facility.

Crane remembered only that she was sitting in her Jaguar when a young man approached and threatened to shoot her. She said she pulled her car forward.

"When I turned around I couldn't see Ennis. I started screaming, 'Ennis! Ennis!' ... Then I saw this person in the distance running. I looked down and I saw Ennis on the ground."

Who was the man who ran away? Crane couldn't tell. She failed to pick Markhasev out of a police lineup.

Crane was the prosecution's only eyewitness.

Defense attorneys claimed that police arrested the wrong man, suggesting that another man along that night was responsible. And they claimed the jailhouse letters were forged and that the phone conversation was the prattling of a teen-ager discussing a dope deal.

The defense also attacked the testimony of informant Christopher So, who led police to where the gun was found and said he heard Markhasev tell another friend: "I shot a nigger. It's all over the news. It's big."

The defense said jurors should not accept the word of So, a convicted felon who sold his story to the National Enquirer, which had offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the killer.

It was So who led police to an area where police found the murder weapon wrapped in a knit cap from which police ultimately extracted a single hair _ 1/12 of an inch long _ linked to Markhasev by DNA testing.

Bill Cosby made one brief appearance at the trial, for Monday's final arguments. He listened quietly and said nothing outside court.

The loss of his son was a crushing blow. Cosby, eloquent in his grief after his son's death, summed up his loss simply: "He was my hero."

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