Kevin Cooper (prisoner)
January 8, 1958
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Criminal status||On death row|
|Conviction(s)||Convicted on all four counts|
|Criminal charge||Four counts of murder|
Kevin Cooper (born January 8, 1958) is an American mass murderer currently on death row at San Quentin Prison. Cooper has been found guilty of four murders which he committed in the Chino Hills area of California in 1983. Some years before he had been accused of the kidnap and rape of an underage female in Pennsylvania during a burglary attempt; and was accused of rape by a second woman in California. Since his arrest, Cooper, who is African American, has become active in writing letters from prison asserting his innocence, alleging racism in the American criminal justice system, and opposing the death penalty.
Cooper's habeas corpus petitions have been denied. The evidence in the case of the original trial has been reviewed by the California Supreme Court, by the United States District Court and by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In 2007, two judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit wrote that "As the district court and all state courts, have repeatedly found, evidence of Cooper's guilt was overwhelming. The tests for which he asked 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 lecture, a distinguished federal appeals court judge, William A. Fletcher, declared "the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department framed him".
In a dissenting opinion, written in 2009, Judge 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 Court 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 federal circuit court judges joined in Fletcher's dissent and five more stated that Cooper has never had a fair hearing to determine his innocence.
Kevin Cooper was born Richard Goodman on January 8, 1958, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he was two months old, his mother placed him in an orphanage. At the age of six months, he was adopted by Melvin and Esther Cooper, who renamed him Kevin Cooper. As a child, Kevin Cooper was subject to physical abuse and ran away from home numerous times. As an adolescent, he was sent to juvenile custody numerous times.
Previous criminal record
Cooper had an extensive criminal past that included stealing and burglary. He was sentenced to a one-to-two year prison term in 1977 for burglarizing a home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Cooper later stipulated in court to kidnapping and raping a minor female who interrupted him during a burglary in Pennsylvania. During the crime, he threatened to kill the teen-age victim. Over the next five years, he was convicted and sentenced to jail twice for burglaries and was released on probation in 1982. He escaped from custodial settings in Pennsylvania 11 times. In late 1982, Cooper fled to California after escaping from a Pennsylvania psychiatric facility. In California, Cooper was soon 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 identified Kevin Cooper as 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.
Seven weeks later, while still staying on the couple's boat, Cooper raped a woman at knife point on a boat docked nearby. While visiting the sheriff's office to report the crime, the rape victim saw a wanted poster with Cooper's photograph and identified him as the rapist. Deputies and coast guard personnel detained him as he tried to swim ashore.
There is disagreement about Cooper's guilt and the evidence supporting it. The evidence used to convict Cooper includes the following.
- A khaki green button identical to the buttons on CIM jackets was found in the room where Cooper slept. The button had blood on it that could have come from either Cooper or the victims.
- A blood-stained rope was found in the closet of the bedroom used by Cooper. The rope was similar to another rope found in the Ryen driveway, but lacked a center cord.
- Luminol testing seemed to indicate that there were bloody footprints in the hallway leading to the bedroom Cooper used and on the shower walls in the Lease house.
- Hair similar to that of Jessica Ryen was found in the bathroom sink in the Lease house.
- A hair removed from the bathroom shower in the Lease house was similar to Douglas Ryen's hair.
- A hatchet that went missing from the Lease house was very similar to the hatchet found on the side of the road by a citizen. The hatchet found on the road side contained blood and hairs that were consistent with that of Douglas and Josh Ryen. A sheath was found on the floor near the bedroom where Cooper slept
- Buck knives, an 11-inch hunting knife, and ice picks were missing from the Lease house. The strap for one of the buck knives was found on the floor in the bedroom Cooper slept in.
- Blood Stain A-41 was identified as belonging to Kevin Cooper, though there are questions regarding the handling of the evidence and whether it was tampered with prior to testing.
- ProKed Tennis Shoe prints consistent with the size and pattern of the shoes given to Cooper at CIM were found in the Lease house and in several parts of the Ryen house.
- Plant burrs recovered from Jessica Ryen's nightgown were similar to those found on a blanket inside a closet in the Lease house and in the Ryen car. These burs were also similar to burrs from vegetation between the hideout house and the Ryen house.
- Role Rite tobacco, the type Cooper used, which is free to CIM inmates and not available at retail, was found in the Ryen's car and the bedroom Cooper stayed in.
- Cigarette butts with Cooper's saliva were found in the Ryen car. Post-conviction DNA testing confirmed that DNA from one of the butts would match one in 19 billion people while the other would match one in 110 million people.
- Hair consistent with Cooper's was found in the Ryen car.
In videotaped testimony, Josh Ryen said that the evening before the murders, just before the family left for the Blade barbecue, three Mexican men 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.
There was also a stipulation entered during the penalty phase of Cooper's trial that “Kevin Cooper was the man who abducted (the female minor) on October 8th of 1982 from the Heath residence, kidnapped her, and later raped her in Frock Park."
Post-trial DNA testing
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 (1) Cooper's DNA was present both at the crime scene and in the stolen station wagon, (2) hairs found on three of the victims were likely their own, and (3) no DNA belonging to other assailants was present.
DNA testing confirmed that Cooper's blood was at the crime scene. However, it was later found that a blood vial containing Cooper's blood possibly contained a second individual's blood; Judge Huff would block any attempt to pursue the matter during the hearings and the vial itself would later be found empty when the defense won the right to retest it in 2019. More importantly, prosecution expert Daniel Gregonis had checked Cooper's blood out for 24 hours without informing Cooper's attorneys (alongside his saliva and the bloodstain recovered from the house). This is significant because of two key pieces of evidence that relied on blood from Cooper:
- Gregonis' initials were on a pillbox that contained A-41 recovered from the house, as well as the date he checked it out. According to lab practice it is common to mark the seal when it is opened. This has caused some to speculate that Gregonis was untruthful when he later claimed that he never opened the vial.
- A bloodstain located on a T-shirt that was found beside a road some distance from the Ryen home; the shirt has several blood stains.
- Cooper's DNA was not on the hatchet, one of the murder weapons. The hatchet had blood from victims Jessica Ryen, Doug Ryen, and Chris Hughes (Peggy Ryen and Josh Ryen cannot be excluded as minor contributors). This has caused some people to argue that Daniel Gregonis planted Cooper's blood on the evidence in order to ensure a positive result
After the blood test results came back supporting Cooper's guilt he claimed that the blood had been planted and asked that the T-shirt be tested for presence of EDTA, a preservative. High levels of EDTA would show that the blood came from a vial rather than directly from Cooper. The EDTA testing was conducted by Cooper's chosen expert Dr. Ballard but failed to show elevated levels of EDTA. While Judge Huff would claim that the blood stain had levels of EDTA lower than most controls on the T-shirt and “dramatically lower than the level of EDTA expected in a tampering scenario involving blood from a purple-topped tube", Judge William Fletcher pointed to DNA testing done by the state's expert Terry Lee as proof that the controls actually had DNA in them, and were thus not legitimate controls at all. He also uses a graph to argue that the EDTA corresponded with the DNA in each of the stains. Additional testing by Dr. Gary Suizdak on ten specimens found significant levels of EDTA. However, according to both Suizdak and the state's expert Dr. Terry Lee, the samples were most likely contaminated by EDTA present in Suizdak's lab. This claim has been disputed, and when Cooper's attorney's asked to see Dr. Siuzdak's notes to verify the claim they were denied access by Judge Huff.
According to Dr. Terry Melton, the hairs obtained from Jessica Ryen's hand were either animal hairs or human hairs that came from herself or someone maternally related to her. Other hairs selected by Cooper's expert Dr. Peter DeForest came from domestic dogs. Nevertheless, Judge Huff had also limited testing to hair without Antigen roots, essentially guaranteeing a negative result.
When Cooper's hideout was searched multiple cigarettes were not processed into evidence. Officers Craig Ogino and David Stockwell (the officers who processed the hideout) were also the officers who discovered the cigarettes in the car. The Cigarettes were also listed as consumed prior to the trial. According to Dr Ed Blake's notes the Cigarettes were 4 mm long and yellow in color. In 2001, the cigarettes were white and had grown to 7 mm. Notably, when Daniel Gregonis checked out A-41 he also checked out Cooper's saliva as well as a known blood sample.
Assessment by courts, governors and independent groups
California Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of California upheld Cooper's conviction in May 1991.
Cooper was scheduled to be executed on February 10, 2004 but on February 8, 2021 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 US 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 by California Governor Schwarzenegger
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 were not known when the first one 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.
U.S. Ninth Circuit Court and U.S Supreme Court deny appeals
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 tampered with the evidence and accused Judge Huff of deliberately ignoring the Court's instructions to perform proper testing, 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 both the original decision and the decision to deny an en banc hearing.
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommends a review
In April 2011 Cooper filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights(IACHR) 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."
American Bar Association 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," Ms. Brown wrote.
New DNA testing order by California Governor Brown
In May 2018, Nicholas Kristof wrote an article in The New York Times highlighting the case, arguing that the truth could be determined by doing advanced testing on the bloodstained t-shirt, the hatchet handle and the hand towel used by the murderer and including diagrams showing both that Lee Furrow's stepmother lived close to where the victim's car was recovered and that Officer Steven Moran most likely planted evidence to frame Cooper. Soon afterward, Kamala Harris (who was at first against the test) and Dianne Feinstein both publicly called for advanced DNA testing. In response, DA Michael Ramos submitted a response to Cooper's petition, calling for the petition to be refused. Ramos would also file to have Cooper executed following his failed attempt to be re-elected.
On July 3, California Governor Jerry Brown hinted that he might be willing to approve DNA testing, sending Cooper's attorneys a list of questions. On August 17, the defense submitted their response, revealing that they had managed to acquire Lee Furrow's DNA for testing. On October 6, Nick Kristof wrote a follow-up in which he reported that Lee Furrow had told him that he was now open for testing to "clear his name."
In December 2018, outgoing Gov. Brown ordered new DNA testing in the Cooper case. The testing has since been revealed; insufficient DNA was recovered from the shirt but a profile that was neither Cooper or Furrow was recovered from a hand towel used by the murderer to wipe their hands. Vial VV-2 was also found drained of blood, which was described as "unusual" by DNA expert Bicka Barlow, while A-41 was found to have an unknown profile that didn't match Cooper or the victims (prosecutors would later claim that this profile didn't exist.)
Independent investigation order by California Governor Newsom
On May 28, 2021 governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order appointing the law firm Morrison & Foerster to "launch an independent investigation of death row inmate Kevin Cooper’s case as part of the evaluation of Cooper’s application for clemency. The investigation will review trial and appellate records in the case, the facts underlying the conviction and all available evidence, including the results of the recently conducted DNA tests previously ordered by the Governor to examine additional evidence in the case using the latest, most scientifically reliable forensic testing."
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