Paul Cox Trials: 1994

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Paul Cox Trials: 1994

Defendant: Paul Cox
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Andrew A. Rubin
Chief Prosecutor: George L. Bolen
Judge: James R. Cowhey
Place: White Plains, New York
Dates of Trials:
First trial: June 1994; second trial: November-December 1994
Verdicts: First trial: Mistrial/hung jury; second trial: Guilty of manslaughter
Sentence: 16-50 years imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The courts refusal in the Paul Cox trials to extend the privilege of confidential communications to members of self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous raised questions about such groups' need for the privilege at a time when they were becoming increasingly important social forces.

On December 31, 1988, 21-year-old Paul Cox sat drinking with friends in Garry's Barleycorn Bar in New Rochelle, New York. After downing several pitchers of beer and mixed drinks, the group went for a drive that ended in an accident. Cox then walked to his nearby childhood home in Larchmont, which now belonged to Shanta Chervu and her husband, Lakshman Rao Chervu, both physicians. Cox broke a window, entered the house, and stabbed both of the Chervus to death. He left many fingerprints, but because he didn't have a criminal record the police could not match them with any on file. The double murder remained a mystery for four years.

Cox, meanwhile, joined Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and began to follow its Twelve-Step program, the fifth of which calls for an admission "to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." Soon Cox started to tell fellow members that he thought he might be responsible for the Chervu killings.

"He told me," one man later said, that "he had gone to a house and killed two people while they slept." Cox's girlfriend, herself an AA member, gave a similar account. "'I don't remember this night,'" she reported him as saying. "'I don't know what happened. I don't know what went on. But I might have done it.'"

Cox said that he had once been diagnosed with patricidal and matricidal tendencies, and that he feared that he had mistaken the Chervus for his parents since they were sleeping in his parents' old bedroom. He also recalled finding a bloody knife a few weeks after the murders and throwing it into Long Island Sound.

Confidentiality is crucial in AA meetings. Without it, members would not freely confess their wrongdoings, an important part of the Twelve-Step program. But in 1993, some members contacted the police about what they had been told. As a consequence, Cox was indicted for second-degree murder.

A Confidantes Testify against Cox

Cox's first trial took place in June 1994. Prosecutor George L. Bolen had a fairly easy case; Cox had admitted his guilt. Cox's attorney, Andrew A. Rubin, meanwhile argued that Cox had been psychotic and temporarily insane during the episode, and thus was not responsible for his actions. Rubin also tried to quash Cox's fellow AA members' testimony, arguing that they should have a legal privilege against testifying about their comembers similar to that of clerics and psychotherapists. AA is to an alcoholic, Rubin maintained, as a priest is to a penitent or a psychologist to a patient. Without a legal guarantee of confidentiality, a person would not speak freely and the meeting would be pointless.

Ultimately, trial judge James Cowhey denied Rubin's motion and allowed the testimony to be admitted. Seeven AA mebers, whose identity, in an ironic twist, the court kept secret, testified under subpoena that they had heard Cox confess to the killings. Despite this evidence, the jury deadlocked at 11 to 1 in favor of a murder conviction.

The government tried Cox for murder again in November 1994 with Judge Cowhey again presiding. Once more Rubin tried to block the admission of the AA members' testimony as evidence, but, as before, Cowhey allowed it. This time the jury convicted Cox of manslaughter; Cowhey sentenced him to 16-50 years in prison.

Although AA took no official position in the Paul Cox case, the court's verdict angered many AA members and other self-help (also known as mutualaid) groups, and some legal scholars criticized the policy of restricting the privilege against testifying.

"It doesn't seem right," one attorney noted. "It's like he's being punished for recovering." One priest who was also an AA member voiced a widespread concern when he noted that "once you make Alcoholics Anonymous people talk about one thing, what is to stop the authorities from deciding that they can come around for anything?" Another self-help member stated, "This just points out another middle-class hypocrisymoney buys privacy. If you have the money, you can have the protection. A lot of people can't afford a fancy shrink."

The Paul Cox case raised troubling questions about how the legal system should handle confessions that occur in self-help groups at a time when those groups were active and successful. The traditional law of confidentiality is relatively easy to understand and appreciate, but having it applied in such circumstances could lead to a legal quagmire. On the other hand, many people felt that the court's refusal to extend the privilege in this instance was both unjust and a danger to the future success of these programs.

Buckner F. Melton, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Reed, Thomas J. "The Futile Fifth Step: Compulsory Disclosure of Confidential Communications among Alcoholics Anonymous Members." Saint John's Law Review, (Fall 1996): 693-753.