California Governor Jerry Brown today ordered new tests on items from the crime scene that sent Kevin Cooper to death row in 1985.
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 60-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.
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, who had never been convicted of a violent crime prior to being sent to death row, 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.
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 rehearing 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 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.” (In 2014, in the New York University Law Review, Fletcher wrote, “Kevin Cooper . . . is on death row because the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department framed him.”)
In February 2016, Cooper’s lawyer, Norman Hile, submitted to Governor Jerry Brown a 235-page clemency petition, pleading for advanced DNA testing of evidence from the case, an appeal that has garnered enormous support.
Other calls for additional testing came from both of California’s U.S. Senators, Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, and three of the largest newspapers in the state.
DPF president and activist Mike Farrell asked, “How could there be any reason to deny a man the state wants to kill a test that could prove his innocence? What is the harm? Of course the San Bernardino District Attorney and Sheriff’s Dept. oppose it, but if they are so sure of his guilt, why are they afraid of a test that could confirm their belief?”
We may now get an answer to that question.