“Yay Gavin Newsom. I’m very thankful to him for having the courage, the guts, to stand up and say before California murders anyone on my watch I want to know all the facts.”

Kevin Cooper was responding to the news that California Gov. Gavin Newsom late last month ordered additional DNA testing on evidence from the 1983 quadruple murder case that sent him to death row almost 34 years ago. From the time of his arrest, Cooper has insisted he is innocent.

“I take no position regarding Mr. Cooper’s guilt or innocence at this time. Especially in cases where the government seeks to impose the ultimate punishment of death, I need to be satisfied that all relevant evidence is carefully and fairly examined,” Newsom’s order states.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown ordered testing just before he left office in December on four of the nine pieces of evidence Cooper had requested; Newsom’s order today includes the remaining five. That evidence includes:

  • Untested hairs from the victims’ hands and crime scene;
  • A vial of blood;
  • A blood drop;
  • Fingernail scrapings from the victims;
  • A green button (believed to have belonged to one of the perpetrators).

“The purpose of testing these evidentiary items in addition to the four items of evidence … is to determine whether Kevin Cooper’s DNA, another suspected person’s DNA, and/or the DNA of any other identifiable suspect based on a match in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database, is present on the items tested,” the order says.

When Brown ordered the initial testing, he put the procedure under the supervision of a Special Master, retired Southern California Judge Daniel Pratt, and under Newsom’s order, Pratt will continue to preside over the testing, which hasn’t yet begun.

Cooper, who is 61, was sentenced to death for the June 1983 murder of four people in San Bernardino County. He has been on San Quentin’s death row since May 1985.  

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 34 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. Now, with the expanded DNA testing, some of those questions may be finally answered.

However, as Newsom pointed out in his order, ”Due to the nature of the testing requested, the age of the evidence and evidence-handling protocols at the time of the murders in this case, the parties acknowledge that further testing may yield multiple DNA contributors of unknown origin.”

Cooper says because the evidence is so old, some of it possibly destroyed and/or corrupted, and has been in the custody of the San Bernardino County prosecutors all these years, it may not yield any definitive results, which is why he is hoping that Newsom will also order an innocence investigation.

“If we get an innocence investigation I should be entitled to a new trial,” he says. “We have new witnesses that have come forth recently that have never been heard from before. They’ve never testified at any hearing or my trial, and their testimony could undermine the state’s case against me.” 

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