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Former NFL star Kermit Alexander was so full of rage after gang members murdered his mother, sister and two nephews in 1984 that he prowled the streets of Los Angeles at night, bent on finding the culprits and exacting vengeance.
The ex-athlete — who was a first-round draft pick in 1963 and spent 10 years in the pros — says the only reason he didn’t become a killer himself is because then-Mayor Tom Bradley made him promise to give up his hunt and let the legal process run its course.
The police eventually did find the gunman, who was convicted and sentenced to death. But three decades later, Tiequon Cox is still alive, along with 750 other California killers whose executions are bogged down in endless litigation and political opposition. No other state has more inmates on death row.
“It galls me,” Alexander said. “The people of California have said over and over again that they want this kind of punishment for the worst criminals.”
So Alexander, 74, decided that once again, he would take matters into his own hands — this time with a lawsuit demanding the state put in place an execution protocol and end Cox’s life with a lethal injection.
Earlier this month, he notched a victory when a Superior Court judge ruled he had standing to bring the action, paving the way for a hearing on the merits of the unusual suit in the coming weeks.
“I don’t like people getting in the way of the rule of law,” he said.
Across the country, capital punishment is in a shambles. Drug makers have refused to sell their wares to prisons, which have turned to controversial compounding pharmacies and untested chemical cocktails to fill their syringes.
There were issues with at least three 2014 executions, including the botched lethal injection of an Oklahoma man who woke up mid-procedure. The Justice Department is reviewing, and now the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to weigh in.
California has been spared these recent problems. Voters approved the death penalty in 1978, but the state executed just 13 murderers before a federal judge halted lethal injections in 2006, finding the three-drug combo could cause excruciating pain.
The state has failed to come up with a one-drug injection, and last year another federal judge ruled that delays that keep prisoners in limbo for years violate the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
The governor, Jerry Brown, opposes the death penalty, as does the state attorney general, Kamala Harris. A 2012 referendum to repeal capital punishment, Proposition 34, failed, but by a narrow margin.
"There are a lot of hurdles that have to be overcome in California before they can execute anyone," said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center.
That gnaws at Alexander, who says his whole life changed the instant he got the call that his loved ones had been shot execution-style by a blundering hitman who targeted the wrong house in the tough Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts.
Alexander — whose memoir, "Valley of the Shadow of Death," will be published in September — grew up in Watts and became a football star at UCLA. He went on to play for the '49ers, the Rams and the Eagles.
At the time of the murders, he was 44 years old, raising children, retired as the president of the NFL Players Association. His son and his brother — he's one of 11 kids — were playing football together at his alma mater and he had just nailed down a gig as a color commentator for the Bruins.
"Life was good," he said.
His mother, Ebora Alexander, was still living in Watts. She was sitting at her kitchen table, drinking coffee in her nightgown and slippers, when two members of the Rollin' 60 Crips stormed in and shot her in the head.
Her 23-year-old daughter, Dietra, was shot between the eyes while she sat up in bed and screamed. Two grandchildren, 8-year-old Damon Bonner and 10-year-old Damani Garner, were asleep when the assassin put bullets in their head.
"It changed everything. It took me from a peace-loving person to being a prospective killer," said Alexander, who had to identify the bodies. "One of the reasons I was able to set aside my vengeance was that the rule of law was supposed to prevail."
It took two months for police to arrest Cox, who was sentenced to death in 1986. His accomplices are serving life without parole.
Alexander said he ended up in an emotional prison for years. His first marriage fell apart, he lost his job and got into debt. He met another woman, Tami Clark, but his bottled-up demons drove them apart after a decade.
Adrift for several years, Alexander eventually returned to Tami, who by then had decided to adopt an orphan from Haiti. After the 2010 quake, they brought the little boy, and his four siblings, home to Riverside, California.
Raising five kids gave Alexander a new outlook, but there was still unfinished business from the past.
In 2012, Kermit and Tami campaigned against Proposition 34, which would have repealed the death penalty and been applied retroactively to Cox and the hundreds of others on death row. Through their activism they met Kent Scheidigger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports capital punishment.
Last November, Scheidigger filed a lawsuit on behalf of Alexander and a man whose whose sister was raped and murdered, arguing they have been denied justice because the state has failed to carry out the convicts' sentences.
The attorney general's office countered that the victims' relatives didn't have standing to bring the action, but the judge disagreed. The next step is for the court to decide whether to compel the state to come up with new lethal-injection standards.
A spokesman for the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation said he could not comment on pending litigation but gave a general statement about the death-penalty delays:
"At the governor's direction, CDCR has been developing proposed regulations for a single-drug protocol in order to ensure that California's laws on capital punishment are upheld. However, nationwide, there is a problem with access to execution drugs and that is complicating efforts."
The attorneys who handled Cox's appeals did not return requests for comment, and his family could not be reached for comment. In his appeals, he argued that he was not the actual killer and was manipulated into participating. His trial lawyers presented not opening or closing statement, focusing instead on trying to convince the jury to spare his life in the penalty phase.
Capital-punishment opponents have argued that death sentences don't bring closure for victims' relatives, but prolong their agony for years or even decades, substituting revenge for resolution.
Alexander said he doesn't see it that way. If California had not had the death penalty in 1984 and Cox had been sentenced to life without parole, he would have accepted that. What he can't accept, he said, is the idea that the hired gun won't face the punishment a jury of his peers thought he deserved.
"It's not about the revenge," he said. "It's about the law."