The “outrageous” case of Kevin Cooper


“In 34 years at the New York Times, I’ve never come across a case in America as outrageous as Kevin Cooper’s,” Nicholas Kristof wrote in a recent column about Kevin Cooper and the stunning injustice of his case.

Cooper, who is 59, 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.

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 33 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. 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.

“This is the story of a broken justice system. It appears that an innocent man was framed by sheriff’s deputies and is on death row in part because of dishonest cops, sensational media coverage and flawed political leaders. . . . ,” Kristof writes.

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, from former American Bar Association President Paulette Brown and four California law school deans, to, according to Kristof, “Five of the original jurors [who] signed declarations expressing concerns about the case and calling for new DNA testing or for clemency.” There are many, many others.

But Kristof’s piece has ignited interest in and support for Kevin Cooper beyond anything seen prior to its publication. Exhaustively researched, with interactive graphics that depict the crime scene, the evidence, the station wagon that was stolen from the Ryens’ driveway, interviews with witnesses in the hours and days after the murders, even a brief discussion of a possible suspect, it has galvanized politicians, activists, celebrities, and citizens, and compelled three of the largest newspapers in California to publish editorials asking Brown why he isn’t granting this most reasonable of requests from a man facing execution for a crime he likely didn’t commit.

California’s U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who declined to support Cooper’s request for an innocence hearing and advanced DNA test when she was state attorney general, called Kristof the day after his column ran, telling him she felt “awful” and now supported his request, and posted the column and her response on her Facebook page. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein followed soon after, not only announcing that she was reversing her lifelong support for the death penalty, but tweeting that she, too, supported his appeal. “There’s no greater injustice than a false conviction,” she tweeted. “If DNA evidence could exonerate him by proving that he was not at the scene of the crime, more testing should be done now!”

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?”

And Rolling Stone writer Jamil Smith tweeted, “Kevin Cooper may have been framed by law enforcement for murders committed by three white men. As [Nicholas Kristof] asks in this searing indictment of the justice system, why won’t California’s [Gov. Brown] allow a DNA test that could stop Cooper’s execution?”

And that is the question. “As for Brown, he has not responded in the two years since the petition was filed, and he refused to be interviewed,” Kristof says. “His spokesman, Gareth Lacy, told me that the petition ‘remains under review.’ Brown leaves office in January, and I think he is running out the clock.”

But why? I asked Kristof in a telephone interview. What could be the downside to granting a request that could prove guilt or innocence for a condemned inmate who has exhausted his appeals?

“I think it’s an easy ask and it’s an ask that’s hard to avoid,” he said. “It seems that it should be impossible to resist. Just allow the advanced DNA testing, at the defense’s expense, and see what the results are.”

Kristof says he first wrote about Cooper’s case 10 years ago, and “I was confident something would come of it. But of course nothing happened. I wrote about it again last year, and nothing happened. I just think if you shine a light, the truth will be out. This time I decided the only way to do this is really marshal all the evidence and do it in such a substantial way that it will be impossible to refuse to do DNA testing. This was the longest column in New York Times history and the most graphic-intensive as well. When one person dies at the hands of the state then it’s a lot more consequential than a death in a road accident.”

As he wrote in his Times piece, “The former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once wrote that ‘the execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event.’ She’s right: It is not just Cooper’s life that is at stake, but also the legitimacy of our system of laws. This is a test of Governor Brown, of our justice system, of our politicians, and of us.”

If you are outraged by this case, and would like to see justice done, please sign our petition asking Gov. Brown to grant Kevin Cooper’s request for an innocence hearing and an advanced DNA test.

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