Former San Francisco 49ers star Kermit Alexander is death penalty opponents’ worst nightmare. Foes of the death penalty argue that the criminal justice system is skewed against African-Americans and that prosecutors are less likely to seek the death penalty when victims are black. Alexander is an African-American who grew up in the projects of Los Angeles. So were the four members of his family slain in a 1984 contract killing gone wrong. He has watched the three black men convicted for the murders try to escape responsibility for their crimes. In prison, Darren Williams — the Rollin’ 60s Neighborhood Crips gang member in charge of the contract hit to kill a disabled woman who lived two doors down the street -- has his own website, at http://freedarren.com, with a link for “BLACK LIVES MATTER!!!!”
“Black lives matter,” Alexander, 74, repeated as I spoke with him and his wife, Tami, recently. “What about my family? They didn’t matter.”
Now Alexander is on a crusade. It has been almost three decades since Tiequon Cox, one of three men convicted for the killings, was sentenced to death. As one of 19 San Quentin death row inmates to have exhausted all of his appeals, Cox should be among the first inmates to be executed -- when and if California resumes lethal injection. Toward that end, Alexander sued the state to propose a one-drug protocol likely to pass muster in federal court. This month, the state complied. He also is behind a ballot measure to expedite a moribund appellate process.
The eldest of 11 children, Alexander was a Watts success story. His life might have turned out differently. In “The Valley of the Shadow of Death: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption,” a new book Alexander co-wrote with San Francisco State criminal justice professors Alex Gerould and Jeff Snipes, the former NFL player recalls how a beat cop named Tom Bradley — who later became Los Angeles mayor -- called him out when he was a kid for stealing from a corner store. Bradley asked Alexander whether he wanted to amount to something or to nothing. Alexander made the right choice.
An All-American defensive back at UCLA, Alexander was drafted in the first round by the 49ers in 1963, and he later played for the Rams and Eagles. Between seasons, he worked as a San Francisco probation officer. On Aug. 31, 1984, he had planned on visiting his mother in South Central Los Angeles for breakfast to tell her about his new job as a sports commentator. He wasn’t going to be just another retired athlete who would fade into the background when his playing days were over. But Alexander slept late. At 8:30, his brother Neal phoned. Neal was panting. Armed men had entered the Alexander home. Neal escaped. A nephew hid in a closet. But the mother they called Madee was dead, as were their beautiful sister Dietra, 24, and nephews Damani, 13, and Damon, 9.
Suddenly, Alexander had a new title: “victim.” He found it “sickening.” Kermit and Neal suffered from survivor guilt. At first, no one knew why this churchgoing family had been targeted. Family members started to turn on one another. Some wondered whether the football pro had done something to invite criminal payback. In a rage, Alexander launched a vigilante crusade to find the killers. Alexander thanks God the police found Horace Burns, Cox and Williams first. If he had hunted them down, he said, he would be in prison, because he would have killed them.
In 1985, a jury found Burns guilty of four counts of first-degree murder; his sentence was life without parole. After Cox and Williams were convicted in separate trials, they were sentenced to death. The California Supreme Court later overturned Williams’ death sentence, which reduced his time to four consecutive sentences of 25 years to life.
During jury selection, Alexander realized that he had seen Cox as a kid playing football in the 1970s. Cox was “electric,” Alexander wrote, and showed “signs of style and grace.” Cox also was angry and out of control. Alexander thought, “Somebody ought to help him.” To this day, Alexander regrets not trying to be the one to help.
“The Valley of the Shadow of Death” doesn’t sugarcoat Cox’s harsh childhood, with an absent father and violent, dysfunctional mother in and out of jail. Both Alexander and Cox came from families with Southern roots. Both grew up in South Central. Both showed signs of talent and rage. Nonetheless, Alexander concludes, when others -- a great-grandmother, a teacher -- tried to instill in the boy the discipline and values he needed to succeed, Cox rejected them.
Gangbangers try to project an image that puts them on the top of the food chain, but Kermit and Tami Alexander see three kids who couldn’t get much right in their lives. They had to borrow a car to get to West 59th Street. They had to borrow $2 for gas. They were supposed to kill a young woman who was suing a nightclub over a shooting that left her paralyzed. They went to the wrong address. They had no plans for their lives. They cared for one thing only -- to look like big players in a high-profile gang. If innocent people got hurt, they were just collateral damage.
They showed no remorse. The day after the killings, Cox paid $3,000 in cash for a 1975 Cadillac.
If they were smart criminals, they would have gone to the right address. If they were methodical, they would have cased the Alexander home. When they didn’t see a wheelchair, they should have understood they were at the wrong house.
I ask the Alexanders: Do you ever wonder whether Cox was a confused 18-year-old who got caught up in a bad moment? “The mistake would have been if he had shot Kermit’s mother, realized he was in the wrong place and left,” Tami Alexander answered. Instead, Cox reloaded his shotgun and murdered two innocent boys.
“People think crime stops in prison,” Tami Alexander continued. “They need to think again.” In 1988, Cox was involved in what prison officials described as a “power struggle between the Crips” with Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a founder of the West Side Crips who was condemned to death for killing four people in 1979 and later executed in 2005. Cox stabbed Williams in the neck.
In 2000, Cox and two other inmates broke through a chain-link fence and then rushed two correctional officers. The San Francisco Chronicle later reported that the incident was “an elaborate plan to take over the Adjustment Center. One of the leaders, Paul ‘Roscoe’ Tuilaepa, reportedly told prison officials after he was captured that the intent was never to escape. ‘We just wanted to kill every guard we could get our hands on,’ he said.”
It’s been more than 30 years since the killings. In their wake, Alexander’s career crumbled, and his marriage dissolved. His siblings endured the trials and the appeals and waited for justice. Fed up, Alexander joined a Criminal Justice Legal Foundation lawsuit to push the state to end the federal hold on lethal injection. This month, state correctional officials issued new rules.
“It usually takes about 10 years to get through the appeals process,” the former probation officer answered. “I would have been fine. I understood how it worked and would have dealt with it.” In prison, he told me, inmates have strict rules; woe be to the convict who does not submit to them. But California law and the will of state voters have little weight on death row. Alexander is working to change that.