Kevin Cooper (prisoner)
Cooper in 2006
|Born||1958 (age 58–59)|
|Criminal charge||Four counts of murder|
|Criminal status||In prison|
|Conviction(s)||Convicted on all four counts|
Kevin Cooper (born 1958) is a death row inmate currently held in California's San Quentin Prison. Cooper was convicted of four murders that occurred in the Chino Hills area of California in 1983. Since his arrest, Cooper, who is African American, has become active in writing letters from prison asserting his innocence, protesting racism in the American criminal justice system, and opposing the death penalty.
Cooper's habeas corpus petitions have been denied, however, with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stating in 2007 that "As the district court, and all state courts, have repeatedly found, evidence of Cooper's guilt was overwhelming. The tests that he asked for to show his innocence 'once and for all' show nothing of the sort." In a concurring opinion, however, Judge Margaret McKeown said she was troubled that the court could not resolve the question of Cooper's guilt "once and for all" and noted that significant evidence bearing on Cooper's culpability has been lost, destroyed or left unpursued. In a dissenting opinion written in 2009, Judge William A. Fletcher began by stating: "the State of California may be about to execute an innocent man." Fletcher wrote that the police may have tampered with the evidence and that the Ninth Circuit should have reheard the case en banc and should have "ordered the district judge to give Cooper the fair hearing he has never had." Five judges joined in Fletcher's dissent and five more stated that Cooper has never had a fair hearing to determine his innocence.
Previous criminal record
Cooper was convicted in 1977 for burglarizing a home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was sentenced to a one-to-two year prison term. Over the next five years, he was arrested and convicted twice more for burglary and was released on probation in 1982. In late 1982, Cooper fled to California after escaping from a Pennsylvania psychiatric facility and was subsequently convicted of two burglaries in the Los Angeles area. He began serving a four-year sentence under the alias David Trautman at the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino on April 29, 1983, where he was assigned to the minimum security section. On June 2, 1983, Cooper climbed through a hole in the prison fence and walked away from the prison across an open field.
Chino Hills murders and arrest
On the morning of June 5, 1983, Bill Hughes arrived at a semi-rural home in Chino Hills, California where his 11-year-old son Christopher had spent the night. Inside, he found Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica and his own son dead. They had been chopped with a hatchet, sliced with a knife, and stabbed with an ice-pick. Josh Ryen, the 8-year-old son of Douglas and Peggy, had survived. His throat had been cut. Mrs. Ryen's purse was in plain sight on the kitchen counter, but no money had been taken. The family station wagon was gone; it was discovered several days later in Long Beach, California, about 50 miles southwest of Chino Hills.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department deputies who responded to the call decided almost immediately that Kevin Cooper was the likely killer. He had admittedly hidden out in the vacant house next door, the Lease house, 125 yards away, for two days. He had made repeated calls from this house to two female friends asking for money to help with his escape, but they had refused. Cooper testified at trial that he had left that house as soon as it got dark on June 4 and had hitchhiked to Mexico. It was established that Cooper checked into a hotel in Tijuana, about 130 miles south of Chino Hills, at 4:30 pm on June 5.
There, Cooper befriended an American couple who owned a sailboat. He hitched a ride on the boat with them as a crew member cruising the Baja and Southern California coasts; he was arrested after seven weeks on the run when the boat sailed to Pelican Bay, Santa Cruz Island, near Santa Barbara.
In videotaped testimony, Josh Ryen said that the evening before the murders, just before the family left for the Blade barbecue, three Mexicans came to the Ryen home looking for work. Ryen did not identify the killer, but said in an audiotape with his treating psychiatrist that he saw the back of a single man attacking his mother. Ryen told a sheriff he thought three men had done it because "I thought it was them. And, you know, like they stopped up that night," but he did not actually see three people during the incident.
Cooper testified in his own defense. He admitted escaping from CIM, hiding out and sleeping at the Lease house, but denied committing the murders or being in the Ryen house. Cooper said he left the Lease house on foot, hitchhiked, stole a purse, and eventually made his way to Mexico. The defense pointed out the inconsistencies in Ryen's testimony, presented evidence of other events apparently not involving Cooper that might have had something to do with the killings, and presented an expert witness that criticized the forensic investigation.
A jury convicted Cooper of four counts of first degree murder and one count of attempted murder with the intentional infliction of great bodily injury, and then imposed the death penalty.
Claims of innocence and manipulation of evidence
Cooper has continuously denied any involvement in the crimes for almost 30 years. Some arguments supporting his innocence are:
- Multiple weapons were used in the murders, which supporters believe indicates that more than one person committed the crime, whereas the prosecution concluded that Cooper acted alone. In 2000, Professor John Ryan (a pathologist) stated that at least two people would have been needed to control the victims, a statement repeated by profiler Greg McCrary in 2013.
- The sole survivor, Josh Ryen, had told a social worker in the emergency room that the murders were committed by 3 or 4 white men. Judge Fletcher wrote, "Deputies misrepresented his recollections and gradually shaped his testimony so that it was consistent with the prosecution's theory that there was only one killer."
- Donald Gamundoy, a social worker who interviewed Josh prior to the police questioning, stated at trial that Josh had not only identified 3 attackers but specifically stated they were not Mexican or African American.
- Judge Fletcher argued that the bloody shoe-print was likely to be from a shoe different from the one Cooper would have been wearing, since James Taylor was proven to have falsely identified a different brand as being the same as the prison issued shoes.
- The shoe prints on the victim's bed sheet were only found a month after the murders after William Baird (who would later be fired for stealing heroin) acquired a pair of the prison shoes, while the footprint on the pool cover was only noticed after the officer who had sketched footprints was instructed to look again.
- Blond hairs were found clutched in Jessica Ryen's hand.
- In the initial search of the Ryen's station wagon, no cigarette butts were found. Judge Fletcher writes, "Some of those cigarette butts could have easily been planted in the car. Moreover, after initial forensic testing, paper from a hand-rolled cigarette butt supposedly found in the station wagon was described as consumed. That same paper later "reappeared" and was offered into evidence. When the paper "reappeared," it was significantly larger than the paper in the cigarette butt that had been tested." The same officers who found the cigarettes had also failed to process cigarettes from the house where Cooper had hidden.
- Judge Fletcher suggested that since the chemical test used to detect blood also reacted to bleach, and since a previous occupant had admitted at trial to cleaning the shower and sink with bleach just prior to vacating, that the supposed blood in the shower and sink could have potentially been the bleach used by the tenant to clean up.
- Judge Fletcher writes that while a button found in the house came from a green prison jacket, "uncontradicted evidence at trial showed that Cooper was wearing a brown or tan prison-issued jacket when he escaped."
- Fingerprints of an officer who had claimed he never entered the closet where Cooper slept were recovered from the interior of the closet, and were determined to have been left the day before the evidence in the closet was officially found.
- Judge Fletcher suggested that preservatives found in the blood on the T-shirt indicated that it may have been planted (arguing that Huff ignored testing which showed that four of the alleged control samples either had DNA or were inconclusive and thus could not be legitimate controls). "If the EDTA testing already performed shows that Cooper’s blood was planted on the t-shirt, or if further EDTA testing does the same thing, that showing greatly increases the likelihood that much of the evidence introduced at trial was false," Fletcher wrote.
- "On June 9, a woman named Diana Roper called the Sheriff’s Department to tell them that her boyfriend, Lee Furrow, had come home in the early hours on the night of June 4. He arrived in an unfamiliar station wagon with some people who stayed in the car. He changed out of his overalls, which he left on the floor of a closet. He was not wearing a t-shirt that he had been wearing earlier in the day. He left the house after about five minutes and did not return. [Roper and her father] both concluded that the overalls were spattered with blood. Roper turned the overalls over to the Sheriff's Department and told the deputy that she thought Furrow was involved in the murders. Roper later provided an affidavit stating that a bloody t-shirt found beside the road leading from the murder house had been Furrow's. It was a Fruit-of-the-Loom t-shirt with a breast pocket. Roper stated that she recognized it because she had bought it for him. She also stated that a bloody hatchet found beside the road matched a hatchet that was now missing from her garage. [...] The Sheriff’s Department never tested the overalls for blood, never turned them over to Cooper or his lawyers, and threw them away in a dumpster on the day of Cooper's arraignment." Phone Logs would prove that the sergeant who had retrieved them made multiple attempts to turn over the coveralls to the lead investigator, contradicting the officer's claim that he never considered it of value.
- "Furrow had been released from state prison a year earlier. He had been part of a murderous gang, but had been given a short sentence in return for turning state’s evidence against the leader of the gang. The leader was sentenced to death. Furrow told friends that while he was part of the gang he killed a girl, cut up her body, and thrown her body parts into the Kern River."
- Furrow's stepmother was found by Cooper's investigator to have lived a short distance away from where the car was eventually found.
In 2001, Cooper became the first death row inmate in California to successfully request post-conviction DNA testing of evidence. The results of those DNA tests failed to exonerate him of the 1983 murders and indicated that hairs found on three of the victims were likely their own. Nevertheless, it was later found that the blood vial containing Cooper's blood had a second individual's blood in it. More importantly prosecution expert Daniel Gregonis had checked Cooper's blood out for 24 hours (alongside his saliva and the bloodstain recovered from the house) without informing Cooper's attorneys, and his initials were found on the pillbox that contained the bloodstain recovered from the house. This has caused some to argue that Gregonis planted Cooper's blood in order to ensure a positive result  The tests allegedly suggested that there is "strong evidence" that it was Kevin Cooper's DNA that was extracted from the following items of evidence:
- A bloodstain found inside the Ryens' home.
- The saliva on a hand rolled cigarette butt found inside the Ryen station wagon.
- The saliva on a manufactured cigarette butt found inside the Ryen station wagon.
- A bloodstain located on a t-shirt that was found beside a road some distance from the Ryen home. There is strong evidence that one of the victims, Doug Ryen, was the donor of another bloodstain found on the same t-shirt. Cooper is also consistent with being the donor of two additional blood smears and a possible donor of blood spatter on the same t-shirt. The testing of the bloodstain on the hatchet, which was one of the murder weapons, revealed that the victims Jessica Ryen, Doug Ryen, and Chris Hughes were all possible contributors to this sample. Those three victims can account for all the results detected in that mixture. Peggy Ryen and Josh Ryen cannot be excluded as possible minor contributors to this mixture as well.
Cooper was scheduled to be executed on February 10, 2004; On February 8th a three judge panel consisting of Judges Pamela Rymer Ronald Gould and James Browning heard Cooper's petition and rejected it by a vote of 2-1. Judge Browning, the lone dissenter, was able to assemble enough judges to get an en banc ruling blocking the execution to allow further DNA testing. Ultimately, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the stay, effectively making it impossible to carry out the death warrant.
The postponement followed a campaign by various groups in the Bay Area and around the country, such as the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the ACLU, Death Penalty Focus, and The Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Denial of clemency
I have carefully weighed the claims presented in Kevin Cooper's plea for clemency. The state and federal courts have reviewed this case for more than 18 years. Evidence establishing his guilt is overwhelming, and his conversion to faith and his mentoring of others, while commendable, do not diminish the cruelty and destruction he has inflicted on so many. His is not a case for clemency.
On December 17, 2010, Cooper filed a second clemency petition to Governor Schwarzenegger. This petition laid out new developments in the evidence that had not been known when the first petition was denied in 2004. The second clemency petition also cited the conclusions and observations of twelve appellate judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, including the fact that blood taken from Cooper after he was arrested was contaminated with the DNA of another person, that a sheriff’s deputy had lied at Cooper’s trial about destruction of key evidence, and that three witnesses, never interviewed by the prosecution, had come forward with strong evidence of other possible perpetrators.
Just before Governor Schwarzenegger left office in January 2011, his office wrote a letter to Cooper’s lawyer stating that the application “raises many evidentiary concerns which deserve a thorough and careful review of voluminous records”. The letter further stated that since the Governor had only two weeks left in office, he had decided to leave the matter for Governor-elect Jerry Brown's determination.
Cooper has filed multiple appeals and applications for a writ of habeas corpus, all of which have been denied. On December 4, 2007, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Cooper's third federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The panel concluded: "As the district court, and all state courts, have repeatedly found, evidence of Cooper’s guilt was overwhelming. The tests that he asked for to show his innocence 'once and for all' show nothing of the sort."
On May 11, 2009, the Ninth Circuit denied Cooper's request for a rehearing en banc of the 2007 panel decision. Four judges (Fletcher, Wardlaw, Fisher, and Reinhardt) filed dissents, indicating that they disagreed with the decision. Judge Fletcher stated that there was a strong likelihood that the police may have tampered with the evidence, while Judge Wardlaw stated "as far as due process is concerned 25 years of flawed proceedings are as good as no proceedings at all". Eleven judges joined the dissents (fourteen votes were required to grant the request for a rehearing), though Judge Stephen Reinhardt hinted that the gap may have been closer. Judge Rymer, who authored the original panel decision, filed a concurrence defending the decision (Notably Rymer was the head judge on the three judge panel that had denied Cooper's appeal).
IACHR report and findings
In April 2011 Cooper filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alleging that his human rights had been violated in multiple respects by his prosecution, conviction and death sentence. The IACHR concluded that the United States had violated Articles I, II, XVIII and XXVI of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. The Commission found eight instances where Cooper's due process rights had been violated, that Cooper had received ineffective assistance of trial counsel, and that there were serious questions about racial discrimination in Cooper's prosecution. The IACHR recommended that Cooper be granted "effective relief, including the review of his trial and sentence".
ABA recommendation for clemency
On Saturday, March 19, 2016, the president of the American Bar Association (ABA), Paulette Brown, submitted a letter to Governor of California Jerry Brown, suggesting that Cooper be granted clemency due to claims of racial bias, police misconduct, evidence tampering and poor-quality defense counsel. “We recommend that this investigation include testing of forensic evidence still available to be analyzed to put to rest the questions that continue to plague his death sentence. This is the only course of action that can ensure that Mr. Cooper receives due process and the protection of his rights under the Constitution," Mrs. Brown wrote.
- Cooper, Kevin (February 2006). "Why Clemency Is a Joke". The New Abolitionist. Archived from the original on October 9, 2006. Retrieved December 26, 2006.
- Cooper v. Brown, 510 F.3d 870 (9th Cir. 2007).
- "Cooper v. Brown, 565 F.3d 581 (9th Cir. 2009)" (PDF). USCourts.gov.
- O'Connor, J. Patrick (2012). Scapegoat: the Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper. Rock Hill, SC: Strategic Media Books, LLC. p. 79. ISBN 978-0-9842333-7-3.
- Williams, Carol J. (January 3, 2010). "Doubts remain -- but legal recourse does not -- in Kevin Cooper case". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 25, 2012.
- People v. Cooper, 53 Cal. 3d 771 (1991)
- O'Connor, J. Patrick (2012). Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper. Rock Hill, SC: Strategic Media, Inc. pp. 55–58. ISBN 978-0-9842333-7-3.
- O'Connor, J. Patrick (2012). Scapegoat: the Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper. Rock Hill, SC: Strategic Media, Inc. p. 59. ISBN 978-0-9842333-7-3.
- Cooper v. Brown, 565 F.3d 581 (2009), p.582
- Kristof, Nicholas D. (December 8, 2010). "Framed for Murder?". The New York Times.
- KGO Radio, Pat Thurston Show, 8p.m.,12-14-10
- Fletcher, William A. (April 12, 2010). "Justin L. Quackenbush Inaugural Lecture" (PDF).
- "New DNA tests fail to exonerate Death Row inmate Kevin Cooper". Associated Press. August 6, 2004.
- Brooks, Richard (October 4, 2002). "DNA tends to confirm murderer". The Press-Enterprise. Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved December 26, 2006.
- "DNA Testing Back in Cooper Case" (PDF). Attorney General's Office. October 3, 2002. Archived from the original (PDF) on December 2, 2007. Retrieved December 26, 2006.
- "Press release". Office of the Governor of California. 30 January 2004. Retrieved December 26, 2006.
- Petition for Executive Clemency, Kevin Cooper, December 17, 2010
- Cooper v. Brown, 565 F.3d 581, 599 (9th Cir. 2009)
- Exhibit 11, 29:22-31 of Petition for Executive Clemency 2010, citing transcript of miscellaneous hearing before the Hon. Marilyn Huff, Friday April 1, 2005
- [Petition, page 2]
- Letter to Norman Hile from Andrea Lynn Hoch, Legal Affairs Secretary to Governor Schwarzenegger, dated January 2, 2011
- Tadayon, Ali (September 23, 2015). "CHINO HILLS: Retrial sought for Kevin Cooper, convicted in 1983 massacre". The Press Enterprise. Retrieved October 28, 2015.
- "Bar seeks clemency for Kevin Cooper". March 19, 2016. Retrieved March 25, 2016.