Paul Cox

This case had me thinking more than a lot of cases do.  It had me thinking about privacy laws, anonymity laws and just how the courts should or should not apply them.  This case opened up a huge debate about "privilege."  There is law/client privilege and there is religious privilege.  But what about in situations in which you believe that you are in a "sacred"  or "safe" place?  The words "but for" are very important when it comes to the law.  It excuses a lot of things actually.  Those two words refer to actions.  Paul Cox's lawyer used those two words in his trial and while he was correct that "but for" the actions of others Paul Cox would have never have likely been in a courtroom it was overruled upon.  I agree with the court... but only in part.

In the middle of the night between New Years Eve and New Years Day 1989 Lakshman Chervu, a professor in nuclear medicine, and his wife, Shanta, an emergency room doctor, while repeatedly stabbed in their bed in their Larchmont New York home.  Their bodies would be found on January 2, 1989. Forensics had found fingerprints in the home but they could not find a match. The crime remained unsolved for nearly four years.

And then a woman came forward after being encouraged by her psychiatrist and told the police that a man by the name of Paul Cox had admitted to her that he believed he had committed the murders.  A little digging showed that her story made at least some sense.  Paul Cox and his family had once lived in the home. They had sold it to the Chervu family in 1974.  The woman would related that Paul Cox indicated that he had experienced an alcoholic blackout and believed that he had committed the murder in a confused and pent up rage against his parents.

In May of 1993, having a little more evidence at hand Paul Cox was arrested for the murders.  At that time his fingerprints were taken and compared to those left at the scene.  The investigators now had a match.  Ultimately Cox was charged with the murders and was waiting trial.

Paul Cox had joined Alcoholics Anonymous (aka AA) in November of 1990. He had just experience what he would later describe as at least his second alcoholic blackout and decided he needed to seek help.  If you know anything about AA you know that they have what they call a 12 Step Program.  Step four talks about searching for ones "fearless moral inventory." And, step five talks of "admitting to God," themselves and "other human beings the exact nature" of their wrong doings.  When Paul Cox got to these steps he began talking in his meetings about an incident that had occurred a few years prior.

Initially it seems this setting is the only place in which he discussed this. He would then talk to his sponsor, and then later to other AA members, only outside what I consider to be the sanctity of  a meeting or a private conversation with ones sponsor. It appears that for the most part his discussion with others seem consistent.  On the night of December 31, 1988 Paul, then twenty-one, had been out drinking with friends.  At some point in the early morning hours they had left but Paul, driving a car registered to his mother, was too intoxicated and crashed into a guardrail.  While his two friends went in another direction the thought was that Paul was walking home.  This seems to be all he remembered from that night (if he even remembered wrecking the car).  The following morning his mother woke him up after she received a call about her car being abandoned and crashed.  He would tell some that it was on that morning that he found his clothes from the night before covered in blood. He would throw them in an incinerator.  At some point he would find a bloody knife of which he threw in a body of water.

On January 2, 1989 after the bodies were found in the home he had seen information about it on the news.  He would tell fellow AA members that it was then that he began to wonder if he was responsible and that he had been riddled with nightmares ever since.  It was said that between 1991 and 1993 he had confess to at least seven AA members, but not all were apparently in the setting of a meeting.  At least two of the members heard this story when they were talking to Paul about sharing an apartment with him and he had confessed stating he felt like they should know about his nightmare situation.  One of the members only lived in the home a few months before moving out because of something unrelated.  She had then talked to her psychiatrist and mentioned Paul's confession who told her she should contact authorities.

Paul's first trial commenced in June of 1994.  It had ended in a mistrial when the jury could not come to a unanimous vote.  The jury was hung at 11-1 voting to convict of 2nd degree murder.  When the trial began his attorney's argued that the sanctity of the AA meetings and members should be preserved and that Paul had a reasonable belief that his confession was protected within that group. His lawyer argued that to force (as they were through a subpoena) the members to testify would damage the organization that had done so much good over the years.  The prosecutor would argue that no such privilege existed for the group.  This would become a layman's debate.  There were those who agreed with both sides of this argument.  There were those who thought the sanctity of an AA meeting was little different than the sanctity of Catholic confession. In fact, a priest who was also an AA member publicly stated so. There were others who argued that AA was no different than therapy of not all jurisdictions allow privilege.  Still, some argued that using the word "God" in parts of their "steps" could entitle it to a religious privilege.  The judge disagreed with the defense and ordered the AA members to testify.  However, in a very odd ruling, he also ruled that their names were to be kept confidential. Eleven subpoena's were served on AA members.

Paul Cox went to his second trial in December of 1994.  There were a few differences but in reference to the AA members, despite trying again in front of the same judge, nothing changed.  One difference was it appears that Paul decided to testify in this trial.  The second was that his attorney, while asking that they found his client legally "insane" during the course of the crime encouraged the jury if they could not agree he was insane they could argue that he suffered from "extreme emotional disturbance" which would fall under a manslaughter conviction.  After deliberating for eight days the jury rendered a guilty verdict on two counts of manslaughter.  Each count held a range of 8 1/3 to 25 years.  His official sentence was 16 2/3 to 50.  

In August of 2001 a judge overturned Paul's conviction.  It was his belief that the AA members should not have been allowed to testify and as the defense had argued, "but for" them coming forward Paul would have likely never been caught.  Of course this would be dependent on whether he ever committed a crime again because the police did have prints on file.  They just did not know they were his because he was not in any system.  The judge also ruled that the sanctity of AA  was much like a religious privilege.  

This did not mean that Paul Cox was released, or even re-tried.  The state appealed that judge's ruling and in 2002 another appeals court rejected the overturned conviction and affirmed the original sentence.  Their argument was that he had not "established that his communications to members of AA were made in confidence for the purpose of obtaining spiritual guidance...." Interestingly in his appeals AA member were referred to as "Mr" and "Mrs" with the first initial of presumably their first or last name.

Paul Cox was released from prison in March of 2015.

Now, here is where I agree in part with the courts and differ with them in others.  I believe that things said in the midst of an AA meeting itself or even those things stated in confidence to a sponsor should fall under privileged information.  Now, before everyone gets their panties in an uproar, I am not condoning what Paul Cox did, but the there are certain areas in which I believe one should be protected.  I believe that in the midst of a meeting, especially while going through his "steps" he had the reasonable right to believe that what he said in that meeting was confidential.  I believe this privilege should extend to conversations with one's sponsor as they tend to work much in the way that a therapist works, in helping one heal and deal with problems that they face.  

However, from my understanding while it does appear all the people Paul Cox "confessed" (I do not feel he truly confessed as he always stated as a dream) to were members of AA, the context in which he spoke to them were not always within the sanctity of a meeting and for me that make a huge difference.  When he told the two members that were going to live with him about this he did not do so in the manner of getting things off his chest and getting therapy. Granted it was said that he believed he should tell them, so that they knew before choosing to live with him, and he was correct. But, I do not believe that gives him any special rights to believe that they would not contact authorities.  

I do also agree with his attorney's that by the courts not granting this as privileged information it could do damage to an organization that has helped thousands and thousands of people.  But, as a former law student I am then left asking, if it had been granted, when and where does that begin or end.  Do we grant the same privilege to all anonymous groups?  And if we do how do we stop people from creating such groups or at least try to expand the picture of one to include the so they may escape justice?   As they say, it could be a very slippery slope.

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