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The 'Grim Sleeper' Serial Killer Trial Is a Trip Back to Crack-Era LA

Prosecutors say Lonnie Franklin, Jr. murdered ten black women and tried to kill one more. If convicted, he would be the longest-active serial killer in Los Angeles history.
February 17, 2016, 5:30pm
Deputy DA Beth Silverman speaks during opening arguments in court Tuesday. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The ninth floor of the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles has hosted every recent marquee criminal trial in LA, from OJ Simpson to Dr. Conrad Murray of Michael Jackson fame. On Tuesday morning, the place was packed for a trip back to the crack era of the 1980s, when prosecutors say Lonnie Franklin Jr. murdered ten women and tried to kill another.

"The evidence in this case will tell a story. A story of a serial killer who stalked the streets of South Los Angeles," said Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman. "And that serial killer, ladies and gentlemen is the defendant, Lonnie Franklin."

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Franklin is known as the "Grim Sleeper" because he may have taken a respite from his allegedly murderous ways during the 1990s.

It's been five years since the man's arrest, and the family members of his alleged victims have been made to endure repeated delays in getting the criminal proceedings underway. On Tuesday, they took up nearly half of the courtroom, marked by special badges doled out to make sure they got a seat inside the overflowing galley.

Besides the occasional murmur or muffled exclamation from the crowd, the room was silent as Silverman described how and where each victim's body was found, along with the evidence she said linked them to Franklin. All the victims were black women between the ages of 15 and 35: Barbara Ware, Alicia Alexander, Valerie McCorvey, Henrietta Wright, Debra Jackson, Bernita Sparks, Mary Lowe, Janecia Peters, Princess Berthomieux; and the one surviving victim, Enrieta Washington.

Franklin sat motionless throughout the day, wearing a crisp, baby-blue collared shirt, a tie, and glasses. He's accused of killing the women between 1985 and 2007, with the bulk of the crimes allegedly taking place in the late 80s. Silverman painted a bleak picture of South Los Angeles during this era, describing crack cocaine's impact on the community as a "lethal epidemic."

"Crack devoured those who succumbed to its seductively cheap price and powerful high," she said.

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When it first emerged, crack had an even higher purity than it does today, according to Silverman. Combined with the drug's "highly addictive" nature, the impact on the community was disastrous. All but one of the Franklin's alleged victims were found to have cocaine in their system at the time of autopsy, Silverman told jurors.

Many of the victims were women who "lost their way" and sold their "bodies and souls" to get the drugs they craved, she said, suggesting Franklin took advantage of that vulnerability.

"[He was] someone who knew the streets and the dark alleys by heart," Silverman said. "Someone who lived there and was able to blend in. Someone who knew where the drug-addicted women and perhaps prostitutes would congregate."

Although the broad strokes of the case have been well-tread by media reports, the first day of trial introduced some especially searing details. For one, some of the victims were shot at such close range that the gun burned their skin or clothes.

"The evidence in this case is, and I warn you, extremely disturbing," Silverman cautioned the jury.

The prosecution went deep into these details when Lisa Scheinin, a retired deputy medical examiner from the LA County Coroner's office, took the stand. As graphic pictures of victim Janecia Peters's body flashed on the projector screen, Scheinin explained how she was found naked, curled in the fetal position and covered with a trash bag.

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She pointed to diagrams and photographs of Peters's body and explained how a gunshot wound ripped through her back and spine. Peters's final moments would have been extraordinarily traumatic ones, Scheinin explained.

"I felt that because you have an injury to the spinal cord, she would have definitely been paralyzed below the waist," Scheinin said. "And she could easily have had trouble breathing because of spinal shock."

For his part, Franklin has pleaded not guilty to all counts, but his defense team, led by attorney Seymour Amster, declined to make an opening statement in the case. Instead, they remained silent throughout most of the day Tuesday, save for the occasional objection or cross-examination, at one point suggesting Peters should have been missing more than one acrylic nail if she struggled with an attacker.

The Grim Sleeper trial is expected to last three to four months, with the bulk of the testimony revolving around forensic and DNA evidence.

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