California Gov. Gavin Newsom today ordered additional DNA testing on evidence in the case of Kevin Cooper, who was sent to death row almost 34 years ago for a quadruple murder in Southern California that he has insisted he didn’t commit.
“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 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.
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.
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.