Declaring that, “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,”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom late last month ordered an independent investigation of death row prisoner Kevin Cooper’s case as part of Cooper’s application for clemency.
For Cooper, who has insisted on his innocence since his arrest in 1983, and whose high-profile supporters include federal court judges, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, four Innocence Project organizations, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Bar Association, and several celebrities, Newsom’s Executive Order is a long-overdue break.
“I’m very thankful to Gov. Newsom for having the heart and the courage to do what he did,” Cooper said in a video interview. “I have to believe that to get this investigation I’ve already proved my case.”
Cooper has been on death row since 1985 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.
Even now, the San Bernardino district attorney’s office falsely insists that the most recent DNA tests conducted on evidence from the crime scene, ordered by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018 and by Newsom in March 2019, implicate Cooper. In fact, the DNA results were inconclusive, and according to a DNA specialist who is a consultant on Cooper’s case, provide “powerful evidence substantiating Mr. Cooper’s evidence planting claims.”
Cooper has filed multiple appeals, all of which have been denied. But In 2009, referring to his 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.”
And Nicholas Kristof, in an addendum to a June 2, 2021 column wrote, “I’ve written many times about Kevin Cooper, an inmate on California’s death row who I believe was framed by sheriff’s deputies for a quadruple murder. Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday ordered a comprehensive independent review of Cooper’s case, a huge step forward for Cooper after 38 years of imprisonment. Let the truth emerge!”
“As long as there’s hope there’s life,” says Cooper. “And I’ve got hope. I want this case to be the final nail in the coffin of the death penalty in the State of California.”