Murder of Ennis Cosby
Ennis Cosby, 1992
|Time||Approx. 1 a.m. (PST)|
|Date||January 16, 1997|
|Location||Los Angeles, California|
|Burial||January 19, 1997|
|Charges||First-degree murder and attempted robbery|
|Sentence||Life in prison plus 10 years|
On January 16, 1997, Ennis Cosby was shot and killed near Interstate 405 in Los Angeles, California. Cosby, the son of comedian Bill Cosby, was shot in the head by 18-year-old Mikhail Markhasev in a failed robbery attempt. Cosby's death resulted in significant media coverage and public outrage. Seeking the $100,000 reward offered by the National Enquirer, an acquaintance of the shooter provided information that led to Markhasev's arrest in March 1997. Subsequently, Markhasev was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and attempted robbery on July 7, 1998. He was sentenced to life in prison in August 1998. Markhasev maintained his innocence until 2001, when he admitted committing the murder and asked that appeals in his case stop.
Ennis William Cosby (April 15, 1969 – January 16, 1997) was the third child and only son of American comedian Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille Cosby. Cosby, 27, was a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, where he was working toward his doctorate in special education. He had graduated from Morehouse College in 1992, despite struggling with dyslexia, and planned to set up a school for children with learning disabilities.
In the early hours of January 16, 1997, Cosby was visiting friends in Los Angeles and driving north on Interstate 405 through the Sepulveda Pass when, at approximately 1 a.m., he pulled off the freeway onto Skirball Center Drive to fix a flat tire. He called a friend, Stephanie Crane, who drove to meet him; she parked behind him to light the area with her headlights while Cosby changed the tire. She later testified that a man came to her window and told her, "Open the door or I'll kill you." Frightened, Crane drove away but after approximately 50 feet (15 m) turned her car around and came back. She saw a man running away and found Cosby lying on the ground in a pool of blood next to the driver's side of his dark green Mercedes-Benz. He had been shot in the head.
The Cosby family received an outpouring of support from friends and the general public. Truckloads of flowers were delivered to the family's home in New York City, and strangers left flowers on the spot where the murder took place. U.S. President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu personally called Bill Cosby to offer condolences. Within 36 hours of his death, the high number of calls asking how Cosby's memory could be honored prompted his family to form the Ennis William Cosby Foundation. At the time of its inception, the foundation's purpose was to benefit programs focused on those with learning disabilities. Cosby was buried on January 19 in Shelburne, Massachusetts, after a funeral held at the family estate.
National media received criticism for its immediate coverage of Cosby's murder. A news helicopter from local station KTLA captured aerial footage of Cosby lying dead on the road on January 16, including closeups of his body, which CNN broadcast later that day. The footage prompted outrage from CNN viewers, who had not been warned graphic footage was about to be shown. The network received hundreds of calls of complaint, and anchor Bobbie Battista apologized on air for broadcasting the footage. (KTLA had not shown the footage as it was deemed too graphic by the station's standards.)
In the hours after Cosby's death, photographers and news cameras crowded outside Bill and Camille Cosby's Manhattan home. Reporters sought quotes from the Cosbys as they were seen coming and going; Bill Cosby, responding to one reporter who asked for a quote, said simply of his son, "He was my hero." Journalist Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "CNN carelessly crossed a line Thursday by airing a tasteless close-up of the body of Bill Cosby's murdered son, Ennis, lying in a pool of blood... Will another line be crossed by media badgering his famous father and the rest of his grieving family for comments about his death?"
On January 18, two days after the murder, the fledgling Fox News Channel issued a statement saying its employees "will not stake out the home of actor Bill Cosby or attempt to contact any member of the Cosby family for comment about the death of Mr. Cosby's son." The family issued a statement saying, "We do not accept people coming to our homes, because this is a time we want to ourselves to find solutions to questions in our hearts."
Rosenberg also criticized Los Angeles CBS affiliate KCBS-TV; KCBS "Action News" blurred out the face of the sole witness, Stephanie Crane, but only after they had already shown footage of her at the scene, and journalist Harvey Levin had identified her as the witness. Crane, the maternal aunt of actresses Melissa Gilbert and Sara Gilbert, went into hiding and avoided the media despite being offered "a small fortune" by tabloids to sell her story.
Gray Davis, then Lieutenant Governor of California, announced a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Cosby's killer, which led to further media coverage and criticism for the offer of taxpayer funds as a reward. Republican Assemblyman Gary Miller called it a "transparent political stunt" by Davis, who later launched a successful bid for governor. Miller complained that the Cosby family was wealthy enough to offer its own reward, and that there were no similar rewards offered by the state to capture the killers of children of non-celebrities.
A crime victims advocacy group, the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, also criticized the reward. "It's offensive," said Kelly Rudiger, executive director of the group. "There are many unsolved cases that could be solved with the incentive of cash. This has generated a lot of verbal aggression against Gray by our members. They're asking, 'Why Cosby and not Smith and Jones and Brown?'"
At the time of the murder, Davis was acting governor as Governor Pete Wilson was out of the country on a trade visit. Wilson's spokesman stated that the governor did not proactively volunteer rewards but would act only after local law enforcement requested it. On February 8, Gov. Wilson rescinded the offer Davis had made, citing the Cosby family's request that no taxpayer money be used as a reward. "The Cosby family has my heartfelt sympathy," Wilson said in a statement. "I also regret that the Cosby family has had to respond to a barrage of media attention with regards to rewards offered by the state and other entities. It is my hope that withdrawing this reward brings a close to this issue and takes a burden off the Cosby family."
A $25,000 reward from the City of Los Angeles and a $15,000 reward from Los Angeles County were similarly withdrawn following the family's request. Tabloid newspapers The Globe ($200,000) and the National Enquirer ($100,000) also offered rewards for information that were not withdrawn.
Investigation and trial
The police stated they believed the motive to be an attempted robbery or carjacking committed by a stranger who had been drawn to Cosby's expensive Mercedes convertible. Crane described a young, slender white man, approximately 25 to 35 years of age, who was wearing a knitted cap. A composite sketch of the man was drawn and distributed to the public.
The police received more than 800 tips they were investigating, including a tip in January about teenager Mikhail "Michael" Markhasev (Russian: Михаил Мархасёв, Mikhail Markhasyov). Markhasev, then 18, was born in Lviv, Soviet Ukraine, and immigrated to the United States with his mother in 1989. He was ultimately apprehended in March after the National Enquirer received information from an acquaintance.
Markhasev, who had previous arrests for drug possession, pleaded not guilty, while some of his friends initially stated they believed he was innocent. The grand jury was convened three months after the murder. Markhasev was charged with first-degree murder and attempted robbery. As Cosby was murdered during a robbery attempt, it elevated the murder to a capital offense, special circumstances that made Markhasev eligible for the death penalty if convicted.
Two acquaintances of Markhasev, Sara Peters and Michael Chang, testified against him at the grand jury. Peters and her boyfriend, Eli Zakaria (who refused to testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself), were with Markhasev on the night of the murder and were high on cocaine and heroin. She testified they had stopped to use the pay phone at a park-and-ride lot about 450 feet (140 m) from where Cosby had pulled over to fix his flat tire. Peters testified that while Zakaria was on the phone, Markhasev walked off without saying where he was going. Within a few minutes, Peters heard a loud noise like a car backfiring, and Markhasev ran back to the car, saying, "Let's go. We've got to get out of here. Let's go." Markhasev refused to tell them what had happened, but they stopped at a wooded area that matched the description of where the murder weapon was later discovered.
Michael Chang, who with another friend later attempted to find the gun, told the grand jury that Markhasev told him he killed Cosby. He recounted that Markhasev told him that Cosby was frightened when he pulled the gun and demanded money, and that Markhasev shot Cosby because he was taking too long to give him money.
After Markhasev was indicted by the grand jury, neither Peters nor Chang testified in Markhasev's two-week trial in July 1998. From jail, Markhasev allegedly sent a letter to an acquaintance in which he admitted the murder, writing, "I shot the nigger ... I went to rob a [drug] connection and obviously found something else." Markhasev's attorneys unsuccessfully tried to argue that the letters were forged and that Zakaria was the killer. Markhasev was ultimately convicted and sentenced to life, plus an additional 10 years, in prison.
In February 2001, Markhasev sent a lawyer to California Deputy Attorney General Kyle Brodie asking that all appeals in his case stop. Markhasev wrote to Brodie that he had killed Cosby and that he wanted to do the right thing by confessing. "Although my appeal is in its beginning stages, I don't want to continue with it because it's based on falsehood and deceit," wrote Markhasev, who is incarcerated at California State Prison, Corcoran. "I am guilty, and I want to do the right thing ... More than anything, I want to apologize to the victim's family. It is my duty as a Christian, and it's the least I can do, after the great wickedness for which I am responsible."
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