Sacramento (June 1, 2021) — Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday ordered an independent investigation of death row prisoner Kevin Cooper’s case as part of Cooper’s application for clemency.
“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 said in his Executive Order. Cooper has been on death row for 36 years for the murder of four people in San Bernardino County in June 1983. 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.
For 36 years, Cooper 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. 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 that wasn’t his (the Ryen’s station wagon was stolen the night of the murder), with people in the car who didn’t come into 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. But In 2009, referring to Cooper’s case, five federal judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals signed a dissenting opinion that begins: “The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.” In his clemency request, Cooper’s attorney Norman Hile wrote, “Nothing could be more important to the integrity of our justice system than ensuring that an innocent person is not executed. Moreover, nothing could justify a failure to take all available steps to conclusively resolve legitimate questions regarding innocence or guilt before putting someone to death. There remain many legitimate and troubling questions regarding Mr. Cooper’s innocence, and there are readily available means to conclusively answer those questions.”
An innocence investigation is the first step toward answering many, if not all of those questions.
“If an independent investigation of Kevin’s case proves what we believe it will, it will fatally undermine the death penalty in this state and have a national impact,” DPF President Mike Farrell said. “It will be not an act of mercy but a manifestation of justice, which is all too rare in a system that has since its inception primarily victimized people of color, the economically disadvantaged, and the most marginalized in our society.”