After a three month trial, a Los Angeles jury Thursday found Lonnie Franklin Jr. guilty of 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder for a series of killings that started in 1985 and spanned three decades.
Franklin — nicknamed the "Grim Sleeper" because of an apparent 13-year break in the murders — immediately becomes one of L.A.’s most notorious serial killers.
Now, the jury will be asked to decide on a punishment. Prosecutors are asking for the death penalty. In California, only a jury can hand down capital punishment after a hearing in which the defendant can argue instead for life in prison. That hearing is slated for May 12.
Franklin, 63, a former city garbage collector who once worked as a mechanic for the LAPD, preyed on young black women in South L.A. Some were prostitutes. Others struggled with drug addition.
He picked them up off the street at night and offered them rides. Instead, he shot and sexually assaulted them, dumping their bodies in back alleys and trash bins. Two of the women were strangled to death.
The trial featured gruesome crime scene photos of the women as well as long explanations of DNA and ballistics evidence.
One woman survived. In gripping testimony during the trial, Enietra Washington described being shot in the chest and sexually assaulted by a man she believed was Franklin in 1988.
For years, detectives struggled to solve the murders. Family members accused the LAPD of giving their loved ones short shrift because they were poor and black.
A 2008 article in the LA Weekly chastising the LAPD for failing to publicize that fact that a serial murder was on the loose in South L.A. helped prompt the department to step up its efforts.
Then in 2010, investigators used a new technique to match DNA found on the women with DNA in a state database. Instead of searching for a match, they conducted a newly developed familial search for DNA that may be from a relative of the killer. Relatives would have a similar genetic footprint.
Franklin’s son, who’s DNA had been collected by the state when he served time in prison, popped up as a match. He was too young to have committed the murders in the 1980’s, so investigators turned to his father, who lived in South L.A.
But they needed Franklin’s DNA. So a detective posed as a busboy at a pizza parlor where Franklin was attending a birthday party. He collected a half eaten piece of pizza from Franklin’s plate. His DNA was a match with DNA found on seven of the women.
A search of Franklin's home turned up a gun used in one of the murders and pictures of dozens of women—including each of the victims. The evidence was “overwhelming,” said Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman.
“This is not a close call,” Silverman told jurors during closing arguments.
Prosecutors pointed to a pattern: In multiple murders, Franklin picked up women who were on the streets using drugs or prostituting, sexually assaulted them, shot them at an angle from the driver’s seat, and dumped them in an alley and covered them up with mattresses, debris, or trash cans.
Two of the victims were strangled to death.
The murder victims:
- Debra Jackson, 29, found on Aug. 10, 1985;
- Henrietta Wright, 34, found on Aug. 12, 1986;
- Barbara Ware, 23, found on Jan. 10, 1987;
- Bernita Sparks, 26, found on April 15, 1987;
- Mary Lowe, 26, found on Nov. 1, 1987;
- Lachrica Jefferson, 22, found on Jan. 30, 1988;
- Alicia Alexander, 18, found on Sept. 11, 1988;
- Princess Berthomieux, 15, found on March 19, 2002;
- Valerie McCorvey, 35, strangled and found on July 11, 2003;
- Janecia Peters, 25, found on Jan. 1, 2007.
Franklin sat emotionless during the trial, occasionally raising his eyebrows. He did not testify. His defense attorney Seymour Armster argued DNA from multiple men was found on some of the women, and that other people had access to Franklin’s gun.
“Its ridiculous,” Armster said of prosecutors request that jurors ignore the DNA of other men found on the women.
Armster at one point, posited a theory that an unknown family member of Franklin's might have been responsible for the murders.
Victims' family members sat through much of the lengthy trial. Some said they were hoping to see Franklin sentenced to death.
“He threw them away like trash, like they weren’t people, like they didn’t have families,” said Tracy Williams, a cousin to Mary Lowe, who was found dead in 1987. “He had no regard for life.”
Police believe Franklin killed more than ten women. They found more than a thousand photos and videotapes of women and teenagers in his home when they searched it. Detectives released 150 photos, asking the public's help in making sure the women were OK.
Thirty-five women in those images remain unaccounted for.