Judges say Black death row inmate is innocent, but he’s still set to be executed

Kevin Cooper, set to be executed for a crime he did not commit (Image Source: Attorney's for Kevin Cooper)
Kevin Cooper, set to be executed for a crime he did not commit (Image source: Attorneys for Kevin Cooper)

California is set to execute death row inmate Kevin Cooper for a brutal murder that occurred in 1983. Cooper was sentenced to death in 1985 for the brutal murder of a family in the Chino Hills suburb of Los Angeles. Law enforcement insists that Cooper killed Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica, and 10-year-old Chris Hughes, who was staying with the family the night of the murders. There was one survivor, a then 8-year-old Josh Ryen who had his throat cut and was left for dead. Cooper at the time had escaped from a minimum security prison and was hiding out at a nearby residence at the time of the murder and police focused their attention on him as the chief suspect in the case. When he was finally arrested police claimed that evidence including a bloody footprint, a drop of blood and a piece of cigarette paper tied him to the crime scene. But when Josh Ryen recovered from his injuries, he stated that it was three white or Hispanic men that attacked and killed his family and that Cooper was not involved. This started a chain of events that now indicate a startling 30 year cover up and blatant falsification of evidence by law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office in the case. This includes the fact that the blood at the crime scene did not belong to Cooper and contained the DNA of two people. But now there is no sample left because it was consumed during the testing process.

There is ample proof that crime scene evidence appears to have been fabricated by law enforcement in a vicious racially motivated investigation. When the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Dept. indicated that a Black man was being held as a suspect, a stuffed monkey was hanged outside the courthouse with a sign that said “Kill the N-word.” Cooper’s conviction on the murder charges was appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court, which became bitterly divided. His conviction was upheld but five of the federal judges issued a blistering 103 page dissent. These judges stated, “There is no way to say this politely. The district court failed to provide Cooper a fair hearing. The district court impeded and obstructed Cooper’s attorneys at every turn. [T]he court imposed unreasonable conditions, refused discovery that should have been available as a matter of course; limited testimony that should not have been limited; and found facts unreasonably, based on a truncated and distorted record. Public confidence in the proper administration of the death penalty depends on the integrity of the process followed by the state. … So far as due process is concerned, twenty-four years of flawed proceedings are as good as no proceedings at all.”  The judges found that the prosecution and the Sheriff’s office destroyed, tampered with and hid from the defense significant evidence that the jury never heard. Finally, in a damning statement the judges wrote, “The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.”

In 2015, Cooper’s case was the subject of an episode CNN’s “Death Row Stories.” In that broadcas,t startling evidence and statements from those tied to the case show that Cooper should be freed. These facts are listed on a defense website savekevincooper.org and are as follows:

  • The coroner who investigated the Ryen murders concluded that the murders took four minutes at most and that the murder weapons were a hatchet, a long knife, an ice pick and perhaps a second knife. How could a single person, in four or fewer minutes, wield three or four weapons, and inflict over 140 wounds on five people, two of whom were adults (including a 200 pound ex-marine) who had loaded weapons near their bedsides?
  • Two days after the crimes were discovered; the Sheriff’s Department issued a “Criminal Bulletin” stating the suspects were “three . . . white or Mexican males,” one wearing a “blue short-sleeve shirt.” In 2004, the defense uncovered that the day after the murders a Sheriff’s deputy recovered a blue shirt with blood on it near the scene of the crimes. The prosecution never disclosed this blue shirt to the defense, and it is now “missing.”
  • A woman identified as a girlfriend of one of the possible murderers alerted the sheriff’s department that her boyfriend, a convicted murderer, left blood-spattered coveralls at her home the night of the murders.  She also reported that her boyfriend owned a hatchet matching the one recovered near the scene of the crime, which she noted was missing in the days following the murders; it never reappeared; further, her sister saw that boyfriend in a vehicle that could have been the Ryens’ car on the night of the murders.
  • The Sheriff’s deputy who destroyed the bloody coveralls lied at trial when he testified that he acted on his own in destroying them. In 1998, over 13 years after the trial, the defense uncovered a Sheriff’s office “disposition report” that showed that the deputy’s supervisor had in fact approved the destruction of the coveralls. That report was never turned over to the defense, and the jury thus never knew that the testimony they heard from the deputy was false.

It will now be up to California Governor Jerry Brown to decide whether Cooper will die by lethal injection in the coming weeks.

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