“Kevin Cooper Case: Was the Wrong Man Convicted in the 1983 Chino Hills Massacre?” was the title of a two-hour episode on a “48 Hours” program on CBS. An op-ed in the Los Angeles Times asked, “DNA tests could reveal if Kevin Cooper was wrongly convicted of murder. Why didn’t Jerry Brown order them?”.
And Kevin Cooper wrote two op-eds, one in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Death row inmate asks Gov. Newsom for innocence investigation,” and one in Truthdig, “Who Is Kevin Cooper?”
All four came out last month, just weeks after outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown ordered advanced DNA testing on evidence from the quadruple murder Cooper was convicted of committing in 1983 in San Bernardino County.
While Brown’s order was welcome, Cooper had hoped for more. As he explained in his SF Chronicle op-ed, he had asked for an innocence investigation, but “For unknown reasons, Gov. Brown did not grant five of the DNA tests I requested, tests I believe could show who committed these murders and establish my innocence, including DNA tests of hairs clutched in the victims’ hands as well as the victims’ fingernail scrapings.” He also maintained that “The sheriff’s department has numerous documents never given to my lawyers that will show how exonerating information was ignored and evidence used to convict me was falsified. The documents will show I am innocent, could lead to the real killers and, hopefully, uncover who in the sheriff’s department framed me.” He then added, “Why withhold these tests?”.
It remains to be seen whether Gov. Gavin Newsom will order an innocence investigation into Cooper’s case. While Cooper and his lawyers wait to see whether that happens, the limited DNA testing under the supervision of a court-appointed Special Master will proceed.
Cooper, who is 61, has been on California’s death row since 1985. Prosecutors said he had escaped from a minimum security prison and had been hiding out near the scene of the murder. They maintained that he 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.
Cooper, who had never been convicted of a violent crime prior to being sent to death row, has insisted he is innocent.
He 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, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William A. 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.”