“I have hope. And because I have hope I have life.” For Kevin Cooper, who has been on San Quentin’s death row since 1985, it is a hope that survives because of “the number of people I have helping me, who believe in my case, my innocence, and in me.”
Those people include Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William A. Fletcher, who wrote in the New York University Law Review in June 2014, that “Kevin Cooper . . . is on death row because the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department framed him.”
And they include the former American Bar Association President Paulette Brown, who, in a letter to California Gov. Jerry Brown in March 2014, said that his “arrest, prosecution, and conviction are marred by evidence of racial bias, police misconduct, evidence tampering, suppression of exculpatory information, lack of quality defense counsel, and a hamstrung court system.”
Cooper, who is 59, was sentenced to death for the murder of four people in a suburb of Los Angeles in June 1983.
Prosecutors said Cooper, who had escaped from a minimum security prison and had been hiding out near the scene of the murder, killed Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and 10-year-old Chris Hughes, a friend who was spending the night at the Ryen’s. The lone survivor of the attack, eight-year-old Josh Ryen, was severely injured, but survived.
Investigators arrested Cooper after they said they found a bloody footprint, blood, and a cigarette paper at the scene that tied him to the crime. The problem was that Josh Ryen, the only eyewitness to the murders, initially told police that three white or Latino men had attacked the family, and did not identify Cooper, who is African-American, as the killer.
For 33 years, Cooper, who had never been convicted of a violent crime prior to being sent to death row, has insisted he is innocent, and there are serious questions about evidence that was missing, tampered with, destroyed, possibly planted, or hidden from the defense. There were multiple murder weapons, raising questions about how one man could use all of them in the amount of time the coroner estimated the murders took place. There was also testimony from a woman who said her boyfriend, a former gang member who had been convicted of murder, came home on the night of the Ryen killings spattered in blood, driving a station wagon (the Ryen’s station wagon was stolen the night of the murder) that wasn’t his, with people in the car who didn’t come in to the house. She turned over the blood spattered overalls her boyfriend left behind, but the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department never tested them for blood, and threw them away on the day of Cooper’s arraignment.
Cooper has filed multiple appeals, all of which have been denied. However, in May 2009, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied a request for a re-hearing of the full court (en banc) of its 2007 denial, five of the judges filed dissents, with six judges joining, and the judge who wrote a denial in 2007 filed a concurrence.
In his dissent, Fletcher wrote, “Kevin Cooper has now been on death row for nearly half his life. In my opinion, he is probably innocent of the crimes for which the State of California is about to execute him.”
“I have no doubt I’m at the top of the list of people they want to strap down and murder,” says Cooper. He is one of the approximately 18 death row prisoners who have completed one full round of state and federal habeas corpus, and with the possibility of California resuming executions in the wake of the state supreme court upholding Proposition 66, “The anxiety is real.”
It’s an anxiety he has felt before. On December 17, 2003, he was given an execution date of February 10, 2004, and in those seven weeks, he says he was “psychologically, mentally, and physically tortured.” But three hours and 42 minutes before he was scheduled to enter the execution chamber, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay. “I had to fight my way back to sanity with the help of my friends, my attorney, and by my own will. I’ve got a lot of people in my life who won’t let me go insane,” Cooper says.
He says he’s not bitter. “Who’s got time to be bitter when you’re fighting?” he asks. “Bitterness is like hatred, it will eat you up from the inside. I just know that I have to keep fighting.” He says he finds solace in reading African-American history. “Now that I understand the history of my people and my culture,” he says, “I get strength from the people who walked this path before me. They help me to stay strong and keep going.”
He says people were always asking him why he was framed, and that one day he finally realized the answer. “It dawned on me that the reason I was framed was because I was a young black man, with a criminal history. I put myself in the position where they could get their hands on me. The rest took care of itself.”
He won’t stop trying to prove his innocence. He mentions other condemned prisoners who gave up their appeals because of fatigue, depression, a sense of hopelessness. But he refuses to be “complicit in my own murder. I can’t do that. I’m not suicidal,” he says.
And there are the people who believe in him. So many who feel, as Judge Fletcher said in his dissent, that “We owe it to the victims of this horrible crime, to Kevin Cooper, and to ourselves, to get this one right.”