Frederic Tokars Trial: 1997
Frederic Tokars Trial: 1997
Defendant: Frederic Tokars
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Bobby Lee Cook, James Berry, Jerry Froelich, Ed Moriarity
Chief Prosecutors: Tom Charron, Russ Parker
Judge: James G. Bodiford
Place: LaFayette, Georgia
Date of Trial: January 30-March 8, 1997
Sentence: Life imprisonment
SIGNIFICANCE: Issues of double jeopardy were aroused when this Atlanta lawyer, already serving four life terms on charges arising from the death of his wife, suddenly found himself facing execution as state prosecutors decided to pursue the death penalty.
When Sara Tokars and her two young sons returned to their suburban Atlanta home on November 29, 1992, they were jumped by a gunman who forced them back into their car and made them drive off. Less than a mile away the attacker shot 39-year-old Sara in the back of the head at point blank range with a sawed-off shotgun and fled. The two boys were unharmed.
Initial police theories of a bungled robbery soon gave way to suspicions about the victim's husband. Not only was Fredric Tokars, a former Atlanta prosecutor and prominent criminal defense lawyer, rumored to be in hock to organized crime, but also his marriage had been falling apart for some time. Sara's relatives claimed she had been threatening to expose Tokars' drugtrafficking connections as a prelude to filing for divorce and seeking custody of the children.
Investigators believed that Tokars had coerced a shady business associate, Eddie Lawrence, into finding a hit man to kill Sara. The trail then led to a crack addict named Curtis Rower, who was subsequently convicted of Sara's murder and sentenced to life. Lawrence plea-bargained his way to a 12 and one-half year federal prison term.
In April 1994 Tokars was also convicted on federal charges of racketeering and other crimes related to the death of his wife, and sentenced to four consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. But this wasn't enough for Cobb County district attorney Tom Charron, a zealous proponent of capital punishment. He wanted Tokars dead. And on January 30, 1997, he finally got to open the state's capital case against the crooked lawyer.
"This is a conspiracy between three people," said Charron. "It is a case of betrayal—betrayal of a marriage and a family and the oath of a husband… It is a case that the evidence will show you deals with ambition, blind ambition, of the defendant wanting to exercise his political power and control people."
Charron told how Tokars had insured his wife's life for $1.75 million, money that he needed to repay $700,000 in missing drug money he was supposed to have laundered for his criminal associates.
Unsurprisingly, Tokars had hired a topnotch defense team, and James Berry wasted little time in portraying his client as an innocent dupe, victimized by corrupt police detectives, an embittered business partner, and a media frenzy fed by Sara Tokars' vengeful family.
"Fred Tokars is the scapegoat in this case," Berry said. "A beautiful young woman is killed … and what would be a terrible tragedy, as well, is if Fred Tokars is convicted of something he did not do."
Charron's first witness—Sara's younger sister Joni Ambrusko—testified about her sister's failing marriage. "She would say, 'Please, Fred please, let's figure out how to get a divorce.'" But Tokars always rejected Sara's pleas, saying,"'I'll never let you have the kids.'"
Next came Atlanta prostitute Patricia Williams, who told the court that during her only "date" with Tokars, "he asked me if I did drugs and if I knew any drug dealers who would kill his wife for him … he said it was because she was going to divorce him and knew too much."
However, Williams' probity took a big hit when Tracey Gammons, Tokars' receptionist, testified that far from being a stranger to the defendant, as she claimed, Williams had several times called at his office, carrying documents for Eddie Lawrence.
The third member of the alleged murder triumvirate, self-confessed gunman Curtis Rower, did not testify at the trial, but his role in this tragedy was confirmed by his girlfriend, Lashara Bryant. On the night of Sara Tokars' death, Rower allegedly confided to her, "Baby, I shot a white [woman]."
Right from the outset, it had been obvious that Eddie Lawrence would be the state's key witness, their main hope of executing Fred Tokars. The former businessman didn't disappoint. In a matter-of-fact way he outlined the plot to murder Sara Tokars, with every detail planned by her husband over several meetings, the last just hours before the shooting.
On cross-examination, lead defense attorney, Bobby Lee Cook, worked himself up into a lather of indignation over the "sweetheart" deal with prosecutors that allowed Lawrence to escape the electric chair in return for testifying against Tokars, and the fact that after serving his prison term, Lawrence would be given a new identity under the federal Witness Protection Program.
Tempers frayed to breaking point as Cook hit top gear. "You're a flimflam artist, aren't you? You're a liar," he thundered over Lawrence's repeated denials. "You've lied so much, even you don't know when you're lying or telling the truth."
In the end Cook succeeded in extracting an admission from Lawrence that he had frequently lied to business associates. "But I know when I'm telling the truth," Lawrence added defiantly.
The vituperative courtroom atmosphere was not made any better by Judge James G. Bodiford's refusal to grant strenuous defense demands for a mistrial over Court TV's decision not to show Lawrence's face. "I'm not telling Court TV what they can and can't do," the judge said sharply.
Although Tokars chose not to testify on his own behalf, his brother, Andy, took the stand to refute allegations of an unhappy home life. "I was over there a lot.… I can honestly say I never saw a fight, I never saw them raise their voices to each other.… I never saw any kind of anger towards each of them at all in the many, many years that I had been there."
In closing, Charron said that although Tokars didn't pull the trigger on the sawed-off shotgun that killed his wife, he was the mastermind, he was "the person who had the most to gain."
For Cook it all came down to Lawrence's credibility. "I can say with absolute candor I have never seen such an audacious liar in my life. He can be glib and even defraud smart lawyers when he wants to."
Fellow defense attorney Berry echoed this skepticism. When arrested for the murder, he said, Lawrence was prepared to do "whatever it takes" to escape the electric chair by framing Tokars with information fed to him by his lawyers while he was in jail. Berry likened the case against Tokars to "a chain. If you break one link in that chain—Eddie Lawrence—that chain is going to make you fall.… If you don't believe Eddie Lawrence, you can't convict Fred Tokars."
On March 8, the jury decided that Lawrence had been telling enough of the truth to convince them, and they found Tokars guilty of murder with malice. Jubilant prosecutors, confident that this time Tokars would get the chair, saw those hopes crushed just four days later when the jury imposed yet another life sentence.
More than $1 million of Georgia taxpayers' money had been spent and not a thing had changed.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Atlanta Journal-Constitution. See Tokars, Sara, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution Index (January 31 March 9, 1997).
McDonald, R. Robin. Secrets Never Lie. New York: Avon Books, 1998.