Paul Cox, AA, and the Law

By Jerry F.

On the night before New Year’s Eve, 1988, Paul Cox and two friends were at a keg party near Larchmont, New York. When the beer ran out, the three went to a local bar where they continued drinking. Then the three men walked toward Cox parents’ house where he was living. On the way they passed the Larchmont home of Drs. Lakshman and Shantu Chervu . Cox’s parents and their son Paul had lived in this house until they sold it to the physician couple in 1974.

On this New Year’s Eve, Cox smashed a window, took a knife from the kitchen, and went upstairs into the Chervus’ bedroom where he sat on the bed. When Shantu Chervus woke up he stabbed her. Lakshman then awoke and Cox stabbed him multiple times. He then slit the throats of both victims. Cox cleaned all the surfaces on which he thought he might have left his fingerprints. He went to his parents’ house and passed out.

On January 2, 1989, police discovered the bodies of the Chevrus couple. It would be four years before the police  identified a suspect. During that period Cox had anxiety-ridden dreams and paranoia. He began to realize that he had killed the Chervus. Several years after the killing, Cox was rooming with another man. He told this man that he had awoken the morning after the murders with his clothes covered in blood. He burned the clothes in an incinerator and threw the knife into a body of water.

In the spring of 1990, after another blackout, Cox began to attend AA meetings. Cox disliked the religiosity implicit in AA but, since he was now controlling his drinking, he continued attending the meetings. Several months later he was at Steps Four and Five.  One night, following an AA meeting, he went to the home of his girlfriend, also an AA member. Crying, emotionally distraught, he told her that he thought he had killed the Chevus couple. His girlfriend said she did not believe he could have done such a thing and he should take it up with his sponsor. Cox told his sponsor that he wasn’t certain that he had committed the murder because of the blackout. The sponsor asked Cox if it would be alright if he spoke to another AA member who had about ten years of sobriety. After that, Cox spoke to his sponsor “dozens of times” about the killings.

Eventually the old-timer who had been been briefed by the sponsor said that he wanted to call his father who was an AA member and a lawyer. Later, the old-timer spoke directly to Cox  and told him that his father’s advice for Cox was “Don’t drink and keep going to meetings.” But the old-timer also suggested that Cox should hire a private detective or a lawyer. Cox met with an attorney, Andrew Rubin who told Cox to stay in AA, stay in therapy, and to talk to no one about the murders.

Over the next two years Cox  told a number of AA members that he thought he had killed the Chevrus couple. One night Cox approached a sober biker and asked him if he had ever killed anyone. The biker spoke often about his own gang affiliation in Oakland so Cox thought he might have committed such a crime. The biker told Cox that he had never killed anyone and Cox then told the biker,  in detail, about his murders of the Chevus.

In late 1990 or early 1991, after another AA meeting, Cox told yet another AA member that he thought he had killed two people while they slept. He explained about how he burned the bloody clothing and got rid of the knife. He spoke to this member several times about the murders.

In December, 1991, Cox moved into an apartment with another sober AA member. Sometime later, he told this man about having a dream about killing the couple. On two other occasions he told his roommate about the details surrounding the killings.

In January 1993, a sober woman talked to Cox and his roommate about moving in with them. Cox told her that if she was going to become his roommate, he needed to tell her about his recurring dream. He then told her about the murders. She did move in with the men for about two months when, for health reasons, she moved back into her parents house. In May 1993, acting on the advice of her psychiatrist, she went to the Mamaroneck Police Department of New York. She told them all that Cox had disclosed to her. She also told them the names of seven other AA members to whom Cox had confessed. The Larchmont police questioned all of them and they confirmed that Cox had confessed to them.

Cox was arrested on May 20, 1993. In addition to the statements of AA members, police had a matching palm print of Cox’s at the entryway into the Chevru house.

In a pre-trial hearing, a member of the Cox defense team argued that the testimony of the various AA members should be suppressed in part because  “These statements were made in reliance upon the historical and necessary blanket of confidentiality which involves the free sharing and communication of issues among AA members.”

The State replied, in part, that Cox’s statements “even if made in express or implied confidence, do not fall within the recognized privileges protecting them from disclosure.”

The Defense responded that Cox’s statements to AA members should be considered as privileged and therefore protected from disclosure or use at trial even though there wasn’t any express statute to that effect. This motion went to the Supreme Court, Westchester County, but it was denied.

At Cox’s first trial the Defense argued that the palm print (the only physical evidence of the Prosecution) should be suppressed because the police would not have had probable cause to arrest Cox and thereby gain the palm print if it hadn’t been for the statements made by the AA members and those statements should have been suppressed. The trial court acknowledged that application for suppression as an issue to be brought up on appeal but nonetheless denied the motion. The first trial ended in a hung jury (11 – 1) and a mistrial.

At the second trial the Defense stated that same objection regarding the purported privileged communication that Cox had with fellow AA members and it was again denied. In this second trial Cox was found guilty of intentional murder but that he had acted “under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance.” (There was testimony that Cox may have thought he was killing his parents at the time). He was sentenced to two consecutive terms of eight and one-third to twenty-five years imprisonment.

At the NY Supreme Court Appellate Division, Defense again argued that statements made to other AAs should be privileged and so suppressed under New York’s cleric-congregant privilege. The State replied that “AA is not a religion” and “members of AA would not be deemed clerics.” Cox’s application to appeal was, therefore, denied.

In May, 2001, Cox petitioned in the District Court for a writ of habeas corpus. He raised six grounds for relief, one of which was that “statements to his fellow AA members constituted confidential communications, the use of which violated Cox’s First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

The court found that, after learning the identities of Cox’s fellow AA members, and noting the confidentiality which AA holds out to its members, the assistant district attorney violated that confidentiality in its interrogation of those members.

The District Court then reviewed the origins of New York’s cleric-congregant privilege, quoting the New York Court of Appeals’ explanation in Carmona that “New York’s test for the privilege’s applicability distills to a single inquiry: whether the communication in question was made in confidence and for the purpose of obtaining spiritual guidance.”

The district court determined that the Appellate Division did not give serious consideration to Cox’s claim of cleric-congregant privilege and that the Appellate Division dismissed, again without serious consideration,  the claim that AA was a religion.

The District Court noted that the New York Circuit Court had already held that AA is a religion for purposes of the Establishment Clause. The District Court went on to remark, “Clearly it is possible as a matter of Constitutional law to have and to practice a religion without having a clergyman as such, or where all members exercise the office of a clergyman to the extent of receiving confessions or confidences.” It concluded, therefore, that New York’s cleric-congregant law must be construed to AA communications. It followed, then, that the palm prints were the fruits of the poisonous tree and the court granted the petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

Cox’s federal claim rests on his assertion that he has exhausted all of the remedies available to him under state law. This area is complex and we needn’t go into it in detail. Suffice it to say that the federal court granted Cox habeas corpus. Interestingly, in his brief Cox cited Griffin v. Coughlin, another New York state case. In Griffin, the court found that “doctrinally and as actually practiced in the 12-step methodology, adherence to the AA fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization. ” Cox relied on Griffin and other case law in his claim that “AA is a religious organization for constitutional purposes.”In that case, the cleric-congregant privilege should apply to communications made between any members of AA.

Cox further contended that the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment prohibited his arrest because the evidence supporting probable cause was derived from inculpatory statements made by AA members. Considered as a whole, Cox’s brief sufficed to alert the Appellate Division to the existence of a potential constitutional defect in an interpretation of New York’s cleric-congregant privilege that excluded from its scope AA, which the New York Court of Appeals  deems to be a religious organization for at least some Establishment Clause purposes.

There was yet another matter considered by the federal court. Cox’s defense counsel did not move to suppress the AA members inculpatory statements, seemingly, thereby, waiving this claim. But there is nothing in the language of the Appellate Division to suggest that this claim had been waived.

The question, then, was this. Was Cox’s communication with his fellow AAs made “in confidence and for the purpose of obtaining spiritual guidance?”

A large body of case law was consulted. Importantly, the New York State Supreme Court had twice declared that, for purposes of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, AA was a religion. In one case they stated:

 The AA program to which [the plaintiff] was exposed had a substantial religious component. Participants were told to pray to God for help in overcoming their affliction.  Meetings opened and closed with group prayer …. We have no doubt that the meetings [the plaintiff] attended were intensely religious events.

In the Cox case the court wrote “Asking that we reject the district court’s conclusion, the appellant cautions us against “establishing” AA as a “religion” and “concomitantly labeling its members as members of a religious sect, “lest we offend “atheists and agnostics [and members of other organized religions] who have reconciled their personal beliefs with their participation in AA.”  

The court noted that, although Step Three invites AA members “to turn [their] will and [their] lives over to the care of God as [they] understand him,” We doubt ,however that many members of AA would therefore identify themselves as members of “the AA religion.”

The court then referred to the Seventh Circuit in observing that the inclusion of qualifiers in the tenets of AA (e.g., “God as we understood Him)”, fails to remove it from the realm of religious activity in which the government may not, consistent with the Establishment Clause, compel citizens to participate ….

True, [the] God [referred to in the twelve steps of the materially indistinguishable Narcotics Anonymous program might be known as Allah to some, or YHWH to others, or the Holy Trinity to still others, but the twelve steps consistently refer to “God, as we understood Him.” Even if we expanded the steps to include polytheistic ideal, or animistic philosophies, they are still fundamentally based on a religious concept of a Higher Power.

Had Cox requested confidentiality before consulting each of the eight AA members to whom he confessed the murders of the Chevru couple, and if he had asked those members for spiritual guidance. the case could have had enormous consequences for AA regarded as a religion. But this was not the case. Though Cox claimed that he sought guidance on how to handle the fourth step of AAs religiously imbued recovery program, the court determined that Cox sought practical and legal advice. He admitted his culpability to several AA members and appeared to be seeking to unburden himself, to receive empathy and emotional support.

There was great public disapproval of the final guilty charge of Paul Cox. Luminaries such as Jessica G. Weiner and Jimmy Breslin wrote articles condemning the court’s decision.  But, though the court accepted Cox’s claim that he hadn’t drank alcohol since joining AA and that confidentiality is vital to the success of AA, the culpability of the murder of the Chevrus was the matter at hand and of that there was no doubt.

Of the twenty-two court cases that constitute the body of law that must be consulted when questions arise about AA considered as a religion, the Cox case is one of the five most important as well as being one of the strangest. And it illustrates the potential difficulty of the typical AA members who may, through no fault of their own, be compelled to appear in court and have their anonymity jeopardized by the presence of members of the press.

About the Author, Jerry F

Jerry F. is one of the founding members of We Agnostics in Tempe, AZ and was the instigator of the WAAFT-AZ Convention last November in Phoenix. He has served in many positions in his 27 years in AA and is currently treasurer of his traditional AA group, coffeemaker of his secular group, and is beginning a term as a board member of WAAFT-IAAC. He considers his greatest achievement as being responsible for a change to the Fourth Edition of the Big Book and his greatest asset as being relentlessly anal.

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  1. Juliana July 30, 2018 at 10:17 pm - Reply

    Is he still in jail?

  2. Bruce mahar July 5, 2018 at 11:26 am - Reply

    Is  the  guy  still  in  jail ?

    • anon July 22, 2018 at 9:13 pm Reply


  3. Carlos R December 19, 2017 at 10:30 pm - Reply

    Higher Power is a general reference to a Divine Force that created and guides the universe both goodness and evil.  But personally the 12 step programs in my experience cannot be further from God if they tried.  To try to appease members by applying different labels to describe God or to understand God is consciously side stepping spirituality to avoid the very tough road that being a Christian requires.  We turn from God because the calling to be Christian is so tough regardless of how big and tough we are or can be, the challenges of His path really bring a man or woman into His Purpose.  I attended 12 Steps for almost 3 years but decided to simply follow God and fellowship with Christians – Men and Women alike and attend Bible studies.

  4. April S. December 9, 2017 at 7:06 pm - Reply

    Interesting review of this case, I watched a documentary on this case tonight and your review was exactly what I was looking for. The details of the case differed somewhat, however I was interested more in the AA is a religion issue. Thank you

  5. John R February 2, 2016 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    Good job, my friend!  I enjoyed your review of the case and case-law thoroughly, and your follow-up comments as well.

    BTW, one of the  reasons i have maintained my status as an ordained person, though i have forsaken the underpinning beliefs, is to provide a “safe-haven” for the 5th steps of those who need such protections as are provided for under current law.  Though, i usually let them know that such protections do not extend to current or planned future illegal activities.

    Nicely done!

  6. John L. February 2, 2016 at 10:20 am - Reply

    Fascinating and disturbing article.  I remember from beginners meetings almost 48 years ago that we were cautioned to use discretion when sharing.  Paul Cox couldn’t keep his mouth shut.  Allegedly, he was in a blackout when he committed the murders, but was he still in a blackout when he destroyed evidence of his guilt?  Permit me to be skeptical.

    We may respect the confidentiality of what people say in meetings, but we should also aspire to be good citizens.

  7. John S February 2, 2016 at 7:41 am - Reply

    Thank you for your contribution Jerry, it’s much appreciated. I remember when this case came down and the discussion it generated among AAs at the time. Very interesting.

  8. life-j January 31, 2016 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    An awesome account of the question of whether AA is some sort of religion. I would be inclined to wonder, reading Joe’s discussion above whether strictly speaking it may not be ok to reject a variety of aspects of say, Christianity and still be part of that religion. I know the clergy of protestantism can not reject creation theology, resurrection and all the rest, but I am of the impression that it is perfectly ok, if frowned upon by some for lay members to do so, at least I have seen this in Denmark. we don’t have any clergy, save for the general service conference and our intergroups, but I would say that the peer pressure in AA to conform is not incomparable to that in many churches. Some religions may cut your head off, but not all, and a few of the fundamentalist american sects will ostracise dropouts, or beat their kid to death like it happened recently, so it is not a universal, even if common characteristic that one must conform absolutely to a proper religion.

    I had heard of this incident around the time it happened, but never heard the full story. Your account was a real cliffhanger, we’re not used to that here, and yet you did not tell the last bits of it: what became his eventual sentence, and is he out yet?

    • Jerry F February 1, 2016 at 5:04 pm Reply

      Cox was serving his term of 16 – 50 years, the maximum for the double murder committed in 1988, in a New York prison. After seven years, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granted Cox’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The judge in the 2002 decision ruled that conversation between AA participants should have the same privilege as sessions between priests and penitents.

      Asserting that AA should be treated like a religious organization the judge stated “Clearly, it is possible as a matter of constitutional law to have and to practice a religion without having a clergyman as such or where all members exercise the office of clergyman to the extent of receiving confessions.” The judge further found that prosecutors would violate the Constitution “if the state is treating AA meetings with less protection than any other form of religious communication which carries assurances of confidentiality.”

      Cox was not released while the prosecution sought to overturn this latest court decision to free him. The Appeals Court agreed with many of the findings of the District Court but determined that Cox failed to establish that his communications to members of AA were made in confidence for the purposes of obtaining spiritual guidance and so held that they were not privileged. The court reversed and remanded with instructions to the district court to vacate the writ of habeas corpus.

      Is it over? Cox’s father is a vice president with Chase Bank so funds are available to continue the legal fight to free him.

  9. Bob c January 31, 2016 at 2:38 pm - Reply

    Geez I gotta stop sharing about that ponzi scheme I used to run. Oh and that hair growth formula i hustled on long beach that actually made people go bald. That one guy was pissed! Oh yeah and the on line pharmacy full of expired meds. Oohps!

    I guess I’ll schlep my sordid past over to the nearest catholic church. It WS a good run…

    • DeeDee October 7, 2016 at 1:30 am Reply

      What? Expired, ooh no, lololo

  10. Joe C January 31, 2016 at 9:55 am - Reply

    Fantastic how you have distilled so much data into a coffee-sized exposés for us this morning. Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t it so that AA has never been present or made any attempt to defend ourselves against the label of “religion”‘or “religious” in any of these 20 key precedents? I suppose that disinclination to engage in public controversy means that if someone wants to deem us as religious or not religious that is everyone’s prerogative and AA and/or GSO has no opinion on the public perception or any third party that concludes that we ought to or ought not to be labeled as “religious”.

    What is the legal standard for which an organization is deemed religious? While I think that belief in a supernatural and personal deity is a religious idea, don’t you have to also reject other brands of religion as being sac religious? In Christianity, anyway I  believe it’s not enough to believe in the God of the bible but one must reject all other posers be it Allah, Zeus, Brahma, etc? And isn’t atheism or apostasy a disqualification for membership to any Christian sect?

    And all evidence that AA is religious points to the twelve steps. Any detailed investigation of AA tenets reveals that rejection of the steps, the big book etc is perfectly acceptable. What religion allows a group or individual, bearing it’s name, to reject any or all fundamental tenets? What is missed IMOHO by courts is that AA is not a program-we are a fellowship to which no supernatural belief is a requirement for membership. Most AA members are religious in their belief and rituals. But the very idea that these beliefs or rituals are a prerequisite for participating or joining is erroneous. Out Traditions and not our Steps define AA and the Traditions defend and define no program or belief as being a condition for membership status.

    So, this is why I ask about the American legal system. From the little I’ve read, it seems that the religious status is declared based on subjective and superficial observation instead of objective measurement against legal standards.

    Jerry, this isn’t to sidetrack away from discussion and commentary on the context of this Cox case, but as a naive Canadian, I have always wondered if there is an objective legal standard to determine if an organization is a religion.

    If it’s way more complicated than my layperson question grasps, don’t worry about it. I just want to thank you for this enlightening essay.


    • Jorge barrientos ugalde October 4, 2018 at 7:37 pm Reply

      AA no es una religion la 3 tradicion es muy clara todos son bienvenidos al programa de 12 pasos hasta el ateo cabe ya que el programa no es exclusivo sino inclusivo no importa quien sea ud ni aun sus crimenes nos importa solo queremos  que tenga la misma oportunidad que tuvimos nosotros y es que deje de beber al menos solo por hoy y reconozca que padece una enfermedad incurable de tragicas consecuencias .

    • John R February 2, 2016 at 12:21 pm Reply


      The US Supreme Court has refrained from specifying a belief in a supernatural being, god, or anything else as necessary for the finding of a body of believers as a religion. see legal definition of Religion for instance: “The Supreme Court has interpreted religion to mean a sincere and meaningful belief that occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to the place held by God in the lives of other persons. The religion or religious concept need not include belief in the existence of God or a supreme being to be within the scope of the First Amendment.”

    • Jerry F February 1, 2016 at 5:06 pm Reply

      As far as I know, AA has never entered a courtroom to dispute the allegation that it is a religion, and I don’t know why it should do so. Taking the high road in this case is commendable. As for a requirement in Christianity that you reject all other religions and denominations, I’m not sure that is true. Isn’t being completely open to all beliefs a fundamental aspect of the Unitarian Universalist Church? I really don’t know much about them.

      While it’s true that the steps are always cited when there is a legal question about the religiosity of AA, it is far from the only issue. The canon – the Big Book and the Twelve and Twelve – are always included. So too is the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer after some meetings. And chanting, which we inherited from treatment centers and is not even a part of AA, is always cited.

      I agree with you we are a fellowship and, to the extent that we act like one and reject the religious trappings that we have inherited from the Oxford Group, we can stay out of the courtrooms.

      Regarding an objective legal standard for being a religion, as far as I know there isn’t one. And having read hundreds of pages of court decisions, including all of those twenty-some opinions, if one existed it would have been cited. Of course, the IRS determines which religions qualify as such and so are tax exempt. And the Department of Health has deemed that AA is not empirically based and comes close to calling it “faith healing” on their website. Still, I think you’re right. It’s all case law and opinions but then so too is much of our legal system.

      Thank you, Joe, for your comments. You made me think. Always painful but rewarding.

      • marty nieski February 17, 2019 at 10:58 pm Reply

        The UU’s are the only ones who make any sence at all.  Every6one is welcome.  I went to them looking for a location for a secular meeting in Brooklyn, Conn.  They would have been happy to have us however the old church has no heat or running water!

    • John H. January 31, 2016 at 7:31 pm Reply

      Hi Joe,

      I’m in no way an attorney or legal scholar but I have been exposed to the American legal system and its inner workings as an Expert Witness in several complex matters before the US Federal Courts as well as a witness myself in various complex business related legal matters over the years.

      Federal Judges (who are at the very top of the system here) tend to take texts (like the Twelve Steps, Big Book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Etc.) and parse them closely looking at the literal meaning of the words in the text and coming up definitions and findings of fact based on the words AS THEY ARE WRITTEN.

      The texts noted above are clearly religious in origin and intent despite some meager attempts at “softening” or qualifying them. As I have noted elsewhere much of this stuff is barely warmed over millennial Christianity taken directly form the rituals of the Oxford Group as freely noted by them in their modern day incarnation known as “Moral Re-Armament” (what a great American phrase) in some of their own historical references.

      Though Wilson (first) then Smith (two years later) broke off from the Oxford Group enough of the Oxford Group language (and intent) remains in the seminal texts of AA (which have been enshrined as near holy writ by GSO and in the daily rituals of most conventional groups) to indicate religious practice. This could easily lead a Judge of any court (State or Federal) to determine that AA is religion based on a literal interpretation of its basic texts.

      We cant take things that are inherently and completely religious (Steps 3 & 11 for example) and turn them into something they are not. You can’t reinterpret that stuff. It is what it is.  In my view it is only a matter of time before AA is defined as a religion as a matter of law before every court in the USA.

  11. Thomas B January 31, 2016 at 8:58 am - Reply

    Indeed, Jerry, thanks so much for explaining this intricate case in a most effective and enjoyable manner. I was most impressed by this quote from the New York Supreme Court:

    We have no doubt that the meetings [the plaintiff] attended were intensely religious events.

    This is not how I would have characterized New York City AA when I first started attending meetings in October of 1972, but it is certainly how I would describe many orthodox AA meetings today throughout much of North America.

  12. Lance B. January 31, 2016 at 8:07 am - Reply

    Thank you, Jerry.

  13. Jon S January 31, 2016 at 6:17 am - Reply

    Awesome piece. Thank you. JS

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