Crime & Justice

Heartbreaking testimony highlights Grim Sleeper death penalty hearing

File: Lonnie David Franklin Jr., dubbed the
File: Lonnie David Franklin Jr., dubbed the "Grim Sleeper" for a 13-year break between his strings of murders, is pictured during his arraignment in Los Angeles Criminal Courts on July 8, 2010.
Al Seib/AFP/Getty Images

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The penalty phase of the Grim Sleeper serial murder trial began Thursday with an opening statement from the prosecutor and heartbreaking stories from victims’ family members who recalled the terrible loss of their loved one at the hands of Lonnie Franklin Jr.

“She was a very good person, a free spirit,” said Kenneitha Lowe of her sister Mary. They shared a bunk bed together growing up. Mary was six years older, so she got the bottom bunk.

“She was a great dancer,” said her cousin Tracy Williams. “So we all looked up to her in the neighborhood.”

Holidays have never been the same, Williams said as voice cracked. “Mary’s death took a real toll on us.”

Franklin was convicted of murdering Lowe in 1987. Her body was found in a South L.A. alley November 1 of that year. She was 26. In all, Franklin was convicted of killing ten woman—all young and black and many struggling with prostitution and drug addiction.

He offered them rides, then sexually assaulted and shot or strangled them.

Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman is asking for capital punishment and is hoping the victims’ stories will convince the jury Franklin should be put to death.

Franklin has denied killing anyone and is asking for life in prison.

During the penalty phase of the trial, Silverman said she plan to present evidence on five other murders police belief Franklin committed. She’ll also highlight his conviction on kidnapping and rape charges involving a 17-year-old girl in Germany in 1974 when he was serving in the U.S. Army.

But the victims’ stories may be the most compelling element of the second and final phase of the trial.

The opening day featured emotional testimony from Porter Alexander, whose 18-year-old daughter Alicia was killed by Franklin in September of 1988. Pictures of Alicia in pigtails holding pom-poms flashed across the courtroom screen.

He told of how his daughter loved ice skating and the cheerleading squad. He bought her a horse with hopes of getting her into equestrian competition. That never happened. 

Alexander, a stout man of 75 with a strong demeanor, recalled when he first heard of his daughter’s death. Two LAPD detectives came to his home.

“It was devastating," he said. 

“It’s like when a person loses as limb— an arm or leg,” Alexander said of his daughter’s murder. “Every time you look down its missing.”

He said he and his wife have saved just about everything she owned.

“She’s not really gone in my mind,” Franklin said.

Rochell Johnson was four years old when her mother Henrietta Wright was murdered by Franklin in 1986. She wasn’t even told about the murder until she was eight. But the trauma of losing a parent so early had a profound effect on her, she said. She’s fearful of people.

“I’m not a people person. I don’t like to speak to people I don’t know,” Johnson said. “So I put a distance at getting to know people because you don’t know who they are.”

Then there are the simple pleasures missed by a daughter.

“Why can’t she be here? I need her here to help me bake pies," Johnson said.

Samara Herard recalled a three-year-old girl fostered by her parents. Princess Berthomieux had been badly abused, but the whole family helped her heal.

“She was such a sweet little girl,” Herard said. “But it took a lot to get her to develop her personality.”

“We were determined to never let anyone else hurt her again.” 

Franklin picked her up off the street, sexually assaulted her and murdered Berthomieux in 2002. Her body was found in an Inglewood alley. Berthomieux was 15, Franklin’s youngest victim.

“The person I was trying to protect her from was the wrong person,” Herard told the jury. “She was slaughtered—an innocent girl.”

During her opening statement, Silverman said the handgun used to kill Janecia Peters was used to kill another woman in 1984. Police believe Franklin shot Sharon Dismuke and dumped her inside the men’s room of an old abandoned gas station.

Coincidentally, that means Franklin used that gun only for his first murder in 1984 and last one in 2007, “like bookends on this series of murders,” said Silverman.

Many of the victims’ family members want the death penalty for Franklin.

“With all these victims, that’s what you deserve, the death penalty,” Johnson said.

Victim family members have had a lot of time to reflect on the death of their loved ones during the more than three- month trial. Irene Ephriam is Wright’s niece.

“It’s just sad. It’s sad to just relive it and know what she went through,” Ephriam said. “But I’m glad she died quickly. I’m glad she didn’t suffer.”

The defense has delayed making its opening statement until the prosecution rests.