On the night before New Year’s Eve, 1988, Paul Cox and two friends were at a keg party near Larchmont, New York, an affluent suburb north of New York City. When the beer ran out, the three went to a bar in New Rochelle where they continued drinking. The three men then walked toward Cox’s parents’ house where he was living, and 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 night, Cox smashed a window, took a butcher’s knife with a ten-inch blade from the kitchen, and went upstairs into the Chervus’ bedroom where he sat on the bed. When Shantu Chervu woke up he stabbed her. Lakshman then awoke and Cox stabbed him multiple times. In all he stabbed them 22 times. He then slit the throats of both victims. Cox tried to clean all the surfaces on which he thought he might have left his fingerprints, but he left a number of smudged prints and a clear palm print. He then went to his parents’ house where he passed out.

Two days later the police discovered the bodies of the Chevru couple. It would be four years before the police identified a suspect. They had a palm print, but Cox did not have his prints on file. During that period Cox had anxiety-ridden dreams and paranoia. He began to realize that he might have killed the Chervu couple. 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 Long Island Sound.

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 working on 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 murders because of the blackout. The sponsor obtained Cox’s permission to speak 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 man who had been briefed by the sponsor said that he wanted to call his father who was an AA member and a lawyer. Later, this man 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 speak to no one about the murders.

Nonetheless, 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 how he had burned the bloody clothing and gotten 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, but then, for health reasons, moved back into her parent’s 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 from 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 this effect. This motion went to the NY Supreme Court, Westchester County, but it was denied.

At Cox’s first trial the defense argued that the palm print (the only physical evidence presented by the prosecution) should be suppressed because the police would not have had probable cause to arrest Cox and thereby gain the palm print if not for the statements made by the AA members, and these 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. One juror refused to believe that Cox could have known what he was doing while in a blackout. The first trial ended in a hung jury (11 – 1) and a mistrial.

At the second trial the prosecution reduced the charge to manslaughter. The defense made the 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 the verdict acknowledged that he had acted “under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance.”

There was much psychiatric testimony from the prosecution and the defense. This included testimony that when he committed the crime Cox may have thought he was killing his parents. He was sentenced to two consecutive terms of eight and one-third to twenty-five years imprisonment.

At the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, the 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 the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” After learning the identities of Cox’s fellow AA members, and noting the confidentiality which AA holds out to its members, the court determined that the assistant district attorney had 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 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 apply to AA communications. It followed, then, that the palm prints were the fruits of a poisonous tree and the court granted the petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

Cox’s federal claim rested on his assertion that he had exhausted all of the remedies available to him under state law. This matter is complex and doesn’t require a lot of explanation. 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.” If this is the case, the cleric-congregant privilege should apply to communications made between any members of AA.

Cox further contended that the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments 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 the fellowship of 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, thereby seemingly 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 practices 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 AA’s 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. Though the court accepted Cox’s claims that he hadn’t drunk alcohol since joining AA and that confidentiality is vital to the success of AA, the culpability of Cox to the charge of 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. It illustrates the potential difficulty of 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.

The real issue for AA members lies in the relationship between sponsor and sponsee. If a sponsee confesses a crime to the sponsor, or, for that matter another AA member, the sponsor or member might be placed in an untenable position. To keep quiet may someday result in criminal charges being brought against the sponsor or member. To inform on the sponsee to the police might violate the spirit of confidentiality in AA. Would it be prudent for both parties to acknowledge that they are speaking in confidence and for the purpose of obtaining spiritual guidance for the sponsee?

Cox is only one of numerous legal cases that question whether or not AA is, in fact, a religion. The 9th Circuit Court, the one covering the largest part of our country, has come much closer to declaring AA a religion than the other Circuit Courts.

For another legal case, albeit a bizarre one regarding this issue, see The Ninth Step of William Beebe on this site.

Paul Cox served twenty years for his crime. He was released on parole March 3, 2015, 14 days after his earliest possible release date. His present location is unknown.

About the Author

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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Sundy Jackson
Sundy Jackson
1 year ago

My thing is if Paul Cox thought he was at home and had killed his parents, why didn’t he go to his old bedroom and go to sleep(or at least attempt to)? Just because something happened in a blackout doesn’t mean that the person doesn’t know right from wrong or what they were doing, it just means that the person doesn’t REMEMBER doing it at the time. Usually most people that have blackouts will remember bits and pieces of what happened. At least that is how the blackouts used to affect me, and everyone is not the same. It was… Read more »

Cecelia Kelly
Cecelia Kelly
2 years ago

Well, my father was actually one of the friend’s with him that night and your story is actually off slightly. They weren’t walking down the street together, Cox had crashed the car and then ran away from my father and their other friend. They thought it was weird, but went back to the bar, unaware of what was really occurring.

Chip Bowdren
Chip Bowdren
2 years ago

Wow.. Not sure if so much about the comment about the 50% of people in the average typical AA meeting are there to get a court card sign. I needneed to speak from my experience… as being one of the old-timers in my home group and Destin Florida dot-dot-dot injure average Mark is off. I don’t know what the stats are or what the research was as far as pulling all of Alcoholics Anonymous to get those statistics. But we might average one or two signatures after a meeting of 50 to 60 people daily. I really do appreciate all… Read more »

Joe C. (@Rebellion_Dogs)

For starters, great article. I think secular AA (be it as an organized ICSAA cooperation with the professional community or each of our efforts, individually) has a role to play in overcoming the best-kept secret in the treatment of alcoholism (addiction) which is: AA without prayer/religion is readily available within Alcoholics Anonymous. Like the Barry Hazle case where the State of California (parole board) and treatment center were ordered to pay $1.9 mil for violation of Hazle’s first amendment rights, there is another Ohio case where a lawyer, caught and convicted of a drug-related crime was ordered to a 12-step… Read more »

Jerry F
Jerry F
2 years ago

Thank you, Joe, for your comments. You mentioned Hazle. I wrote an article on Hazle and it is in the editing process with AABB. Actually, I just revised it as Mr Hazle has recently been busted again. I use these human interest and courtroom drama stories as scaffolding to hang my message to my fellow AA members. The issues: sponsorship, court-mandated attendance, communication between AA members, religion in AA in all its ugliness, 13th stepping, and more is what matters to me in writing these articles. I applaud your efforts in outreach but I am concerned about the nudge from… Read more »

2 years ago

I am an atheist. I do not believe that there is any suprahuman consciousness aiding and/or directing any person engaging in any activity. There is, however, a formable moral code of conduct(s) that a society operates within. As science and reason add to the knowledge base of the society, that societys moral code may be altered to accept new scientific knowledge and reason defined by that society. That being said, how to account for the enormous and very real emotional impact of a Beethoven symphony or the deep emotional impact felt while gazing at a Rubens or a Michelangelo. The… Read more »

John M.
John M.
2 years ago
Reply to  Jack

Although lawyers are probably the best evidence against the existence of God, a sponsee who has a strong desire to talk about a past crime should be advised by a sponsor to remain silent and seek legal counsel.

2 years ago
Reply to  John M.

LOL. To be more specific, defense lawyers!

2 years ago
Reply to  Jack

Jack….loved your comments!  I totally relate and agree.  Regarding the last part, writing down confessions & then burning them are most definitely the safest actions if one would want to have complete anonymity from prosecution.  However, it’s unclear whether YOU read what your sponsee wrote before it was burned or not.   Just curious.