Twenty years ago to the month, Dr. Stephen Speeg and 11 other residents of East Baton Rouge Parish convicted Frank Ford Cosey in the 1990 rape and murder of a 12-year-old Baton Rouge girl and decided he should die for what Speeg described on the jury verdict form as “an especially heinous, atrocious and cruel” crime.
Two decades later, Cosey’s appeals continue to move at a snail’s pace in the 19th Judicial District Court, the very court where he was unanimously found guilty of first-degree murder by Speeg — the jury foreman — and his fellow jurors, and sentenced to death.
But much to the chagrin of at least one Louisiana Supreme Court justice, and to Speeg to a degree, the 56-year-old Ford is no closer today to the death chamber than he was 20 years ago.
Speeg said Thursday he is all for a defendant receiving his due process under the law. But, he added, “It’s just absurd that it takes this long.”
He said his only concern is with the victim’s family.
“That’s where my prayers are,” Speeg said.
In a ruling earlier this month in Cosey’s case, Justice Scott Crichton voiced concern over what he described as “the inordinate span of time” that has elapsed since the jury recommended in June 1996 that Cosey die for his crime. A Baton Rouge state judge formally imposed the death penalty three months later.
Crichton noted that after the state Supreme Court affirmed Cosey’s conviction and sentence in 2000 and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case the following year, Cosey himself filed in 2001 what is termed in legal circles as a “shell” application for post-conviction relief in the 19th Judicial District Court.
Crichton characterized Cosey’s petition as “an apparent place-holder strategic maneuver.”
Then, in 2012 and 2013, Cosey’s post-conviction attorneys supplemented the bare-bones petition he filed more than a decade earlier.
Last year, state District Judge Don Johnson denied most of Cosey’s claims, which include allegations that he received ineffective assistance from his trial and appellate attorneys.
“Now, in 2016 (after the savage murder, two decades after the verdict, and more than a decade after the ‘shell’ application) this case, on collateral review, has finally reached this Court,” Crichton wrote June 17. “In my view, this gamesmanship and delay is unreasonable and unacceptable.”
Cosey’s current attorney, Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana director Gary Clements, believes gamesmanship is a poor choice of words.
“It’s not a word I would have chosen. I wouldn’t call it gamesmanship. I’d call it defense,” he said.
Clements stressed that post-conviction cases are complicated and take time to resolve.
“The system has moved on,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can.”
Johnson, the 19th Judicial District Court judge presiding over the Cosey post-conviction case, did offer Cosey perhaps more than a glimmer of hope in May 2015 when he ruled the condemned killer is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on his claim that he is intellectually disabled and thus ineligible for execution.
The state Supreme Court, on June 17, did not disagree with Johnson on that point.
Clements said it is possible the hearing on Cosey’s claim of intellectual disability, formerly called mental retardation, could be held this year.
Cosey served time for an armed robbery conviction and was on parole when he raped and killed 12-year-old Delky Nelson on July 6, 1990. She lived across the street from Cosey on El Scott Avenue off Joor Road.
Cosey was accused of beating the child; stomping on her face so hard that the last two letters of the word “Reebok” were imprinted on her left cheek; slitting her throat and leaving her nude body spread-eagled on her back in her mother’s bedroom.
Cosey’s fingerprints were discovered near the body, and DNA results proved his semen was found on a blanket near her body.
Cosey contends, and his trial attorneys argued to Speeg and his fellow jurors, that another neighborhood man — now-deceased Patrick Jenkins — killed the girl. Jenkins committed suicide in 1994, two years before Cosey’s trial, after killing his girlfriend and their 8-month-old child.
Speeg said the jury was an educated group that looked at all of the evidence, which he called indisputable. He said the death penalty was a just decision.
The state Attorney General’s Office has been handling the case since 2009, the year East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III was sworn in and recused his office. Moore was one of Cosey’s attorneys in the 1990s.
“In the best interest of our state, the Louisiana Department of Justice has and will continue to pursue this case fairly, diligently and efficiently,” Ruth Wisher, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jeff Landry, said Friday.
Cosey’s trial attorneys included Tony Marabella, now a 19th Judicial District Court judge, and Frank Holthaus, a prominent Baton Rouge lawyer.
“That’s counsel that you and I probably couldn’t afford together,” Speeg said when told of Cosey’s claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel.