When Jerry Brown announced on Christmas Eve that he was granting 143 pardons and 131 commutations, he also announced that he was granting Kevin Cooper’s request for DNA testing on evidence collected from the scene of the quadruple murder that he was convicted of committing.
The governor’s Executive Order calls for “limited retesting of certain physical evidence in the case and appointing a retired judge as a special master to oversee this testing, its scope and protocols.”
The 61-year-old Cooper was sentenced to death for the murder of four people in a suburb of Los Angeles in June 1983. He has been on San Quentin’s death row for 33 years.
Cooper was disappointed with the order. In a letter to his supporters, he wrote that, “Governor Brown waited until there were about 10 working days left in his administration before he granted us this ‘very limited DNA testing order, and special master to oversee the testing,’ while denying us what is possibly the most important thing that we requested when we asked for a special master and DNA testing, which is an innocence investigation.
“This innocence investigation is very, very important because it will allow, if only for the first time, expert witnesses to be heard in an open forum. These expert witnesses are: a memory expert, a former FBI profiler, a former FBI special agent, a certified laboratory auditor, and an appeals attorney who has extensive experience in death penalty cases.”
Cooper also noted that the governor didn’t address what he says were “six Brady violations where the police and district attorney withheld material exculpatory evidence from my trial attorney.”
Brown’s Executive Order means four items of evidence will be tested: a tan t-shirt; an orange towel; a hatchet handle; and a hatchet sheath. The order indicates that these were the four pieces Cooper’s defense team said were a priority.
Brown stipulated that “both parties acknowledge the distinct possibility that further testing may yield multiple DNA contributors of unknown origin” and that if the result is that there are “no additional DNA matches, or only DNA from unknown contributors, this matter should be closed.”
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.
Cooper has consistently insisted he is innocent, and there are serious questions about evidence that was missing, tampered with, destroyed, possibly planted, or hidden from the defense.