Ellis A. Cohen, whose true-life TV movies introduced the nation to a disabled woman coaching Little League baseball and a paralyzed girl learning to walk through electricity, is taking us behind bars in his latest project to meet a convicted rapist.
But was he guilty?
In "Dangerous Evidence," published in paperback by Berkley Books, Mr. Cohen and co-author Milton J. Shapiro take on alleged racism and injustice in the Marine Corps, examining how a 1983 court-martial convicted black Marine Cpl. Lindsey Scott and sentenced him to 30 years on charges of raping and stabbing the wife of a white fellow Marine.
"This book is going to open a lot of sores," says Mr. Cohen, 49, a Baltimore native who grew up in the Park Heights area. He is hoping the book -- his second -- will become his next movie project.
It tells a story of how alleged racism, command influence, inept and slanted investigation, and an incompetent legal defense led to the conviction of Corporal Scott at the Marine base in Quantico, Va.
Corporal Scott was re-tried and acquitted on a split decision in 1988 after the U.S. Court of Military Appeals overturned the conviction -- in large measure because of the efforts of the late Lori Jackson, a civil-rights activist in Prince William County, Va., to whom the book is dedicated.
Col. Fred Peck, the Marine Corps' deputy director of public affairs, says the corps has no comment on the book -- but he remains convinced that Corporal Scott was guilty as charged. "I'm firmly committed to the theory that Lindsey Scott perpetrated the crime, but the court-martial was 4-to-3 for conviction, and since there's no such thing as a hung jury in the military, he walked."
"I'm upset by the book," Colonel Peck says. "Mr. Cohen concocts a theory of race bias and conspiracy that didn't exist. The most-senior African-American officer in the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. Frank Petersen, convened the second court-martial. The 'Dangerous Evidence' is all against Lindsey Scott. However, he was technically found innocent and he's a free man."
At the time of the rape at Quantico, Corporal Scott was the only black investigator in the Marine Corps' Criminal Investigation Division assigned to the Security Battalion. Ms. Jackson -- a civil rights activist who lived nearby in Prince William County -- heard about the case and felt there was a campaign to rid the CID unit of blacks.
Ms. Jackson, the mother of seven, became an unpaid full-time investigator on Corporal Scott's behalf before the first court-martial. Even after he was convicted and sent to the federal penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, she continued the fight -- into the halls of Congress and with anyone who would listen.
Without Ms. Jackson's determination and persistence even as liver cancer ravaged her body, Corporal Scott would still be in prison, Mr. Cohen says.
Mr. Cohen says he learned about the case in 1984, after the conviction, when a former senior producer for "60 Minutes" tipped him that there was more to it than the CBS news magazine show could use.
After years of looking into it, Mr. Cohen says, he found the key to doing the book -- an interview in Chicago in December 1990, with retired Marine Maj. Edwin Burnette, lead prosecutor at the first court-martial and now a public defender in Illinois. Major Burnette admitted that the government's case was weak and that racism was involved.
Mr. Cohen says the former prosecutor told him he thought the rape victim might have lied when she identified Corporal Scott as her assailant, and that the Naval Investigative Service "bungled the investigation."
Major Burnette was the first person on the government side who spoke about the case without defending unreservedly the government's actions, Mr. Cohen says.
As he met the players in the case, Mr. Cohen says, he found himself becoming increasingly involved, mainly because of Ms. Jackson, with whom a kinship grew. Her children asked him to deliver the eulogy at her funeral in 1988.
Mr. Cohen says he finally met Corporal Scott in the brig at Quantico. Did he believe the Marine? "Yes, it was a gut feeling. He looked me in the eye and said, 'I didn't do this.' The first thing I saw was that gold tooth; it was staring at me."
Corporal Scott had a prominent gold front tooth, Mr. Cohen said -- a feature that the rape victim, who lived in the same apartment complex as Corporal Scott and his wife, Lola, never mentioned in describing her assailant, he says.
Corporal Scott's original lawyer asked good questions, according to the transcript, Mr. Cohen says, "but he folded and didn't pursue them" in the face of an aggressive prosecution and adverse rulings from the judge. The military appeals court reversed the verdict because of that ineffective representation.
Mr. Cohen said he has spent more than a decade, off and on, involved with the Scott case and is determined to make it into a movie.
A multimedia company has an option on the story, but its fate remains unsettled, Mr. Cohen says. Gossip columnist Liz Smith recently reported that actress Whoopi Goldberg might be interested in the role of Lori Jackson.
Mr. Cohen, a 1963 graduate of Forest Park High School, is also the co-author, with Jina Bacarr, of "Avenue of the Stars," a fictional account of a Japanese takeover of a major Hollywood studio.
He says he dreamed up the plot while picketing -- on the street of the title -- during the six-month Writer's Guild strike in 1988.
Coincidentally, but fortuitously for later sales, Mr. Cohen says, the day before the novel was sold to NAL-Dutton in 1989, Sony Corp. purchased Columbia Studios.
Mr. Cohen became so deeply involved in the Scott case that he eventually became part of the story. "I couldn't write myself in the third person," he says, explaining how he came to hire Mr. Shapiro, a London-based "professional ghost," to write the second part "and polish the manuscript."
Mr. Cohen -- who earned an associate's degree in communications from what was then Baltimore Junior College, with an Army hitch sandwiched between college years -- started out in public relations. He worked for the former Club Venus, the Jewish Community Center and the old Hochschild Kohn department store, and produced radio commercials. Mr. Cohen says he fell in love with producing, the job of bringing disparate elements together to create a finished product.
He polished his craft at New York ad agencies and at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, where he produced )) two New York Emmy Awards shows.
From there, Mr. Cohen went to work in the in-house movie and miniseries division of CBS, where he called on his own childhood days to produce his 1979 hit film, "Aunt Mary," starring Jean Stapleton as the poor and handicapped woman coaching neighborhood baseball teams.
His other TV movies are "First Steps," an account of pioneering experiments allowing paraplegics to walk again; and "Love, Mary," the story of a young woman who overcame a background of delinquency, a learning disability and a serious stroke to become a doctor at age 35.
Mr. Cohen has been away from Baltimore for more than 20 years. He occasionally visits his parents, Leonard and Selma Cohen, and his younger brother, Jerome, an aspiring screenwriter, but has no desire to return permanently.
What he really misses, he says, is New York -- even more so since he was nearly killed in the Northridge earthquake that rocked the Los Angeles area on Jan. 17, 1994.
"I broke my left foot in that. My whole place fell in on me," Mr. Cohen said. "I'm scared after nearly being killed. I'm scared all the time now."