This Man Has Waited Too Long For Justice
By Monica Hahn
Kevin Cooper has been on California’s death row in San Quentin prison since 1985.
But he may now finally be able to challenge his unfair, false conviction and prove his innocence. Cooper recently won the right to post-conviction DNA testing — the first prisoner on California’s death row to do so.
Cooper was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of the Ryen family. His initial trial was completely unfair. He was denied adequate counsel, crucial evidence was destroyed, DNA testing was denied, and important evidence and witnesses weren’t presented.
For example, Josh Ryen, the 8-year-old survivor of the murders, has always maintained that three white men murdered his family, but this was never brought up in Cooper’s trial. Clumps of long blonde hair were found in the hands of the victims, obviously not belonging to an African American defendant. This evidence, too, was disregarded. Furthermore, a pair of bloody coveralls was given to police by a woman who said that her husband was involved in the murders and had been wearing the clothes at the time. But police deliberately destroyed and disposed of the evidence, and the woman’s testimony was never heard.
Cooper and his attorneys are optimistic that the DNA analysis will prove Kevin’s long-claimed innocence. But recent discoveries by Cooper’s attorneys have brought to light other problems.
Cooper’s attorneys have found out that some evidence now being tested was released — without any valid permission — in 1999 to a criminologist who has admitted to altering his laboratory testing results in order to implicate Cooper during his initial trial. The lawyers are suspicious, since this evidence could be tampered with in many ways.
Activists who have fought hard to win DNA testing for Cooper — whose life depends on the outcome — are outraged by this continued misconduct.
But Campaign members, who have hosted demonstrations and teach-ins, organized petition drives and have started a signature ad campaign for Kevin, are determined to fight until his innocence is finally proven.
DNA Testing Raises More Questions Than It Answers
By: Crystal Bybee
Regular readers of the New Abolitionist will be familiar with the case of California death row prisoner Kevin Cooper. The Bay Area Campaign to End the Death Penalty began publicizing this case and petitioning for DNA testing that we had hoped would prove Kevin’s innocence. We won the testing, but now four pieces of evidence have come back linking Kevin to the crime.
We believe that this evidence was mishandled and very likely tampered with. This is a case where the DNA testing actually raises more questions than it answers.
Kevin was convicted of the 1983 murder of a San Bernardino County family. Eight-year-old Josh Ryen survived to tell police that three white or Hispanic men had killed his family and attacked him. Kevin Cooper, an African American man, now sits on death row for this crime and could face execution–despite the fact that the case against him is full of holes.
Destruction of evidence and police misconduct have played a part in the case from the beginning, but neither Kevin nor his attorneys knew the extent of the mishandling of evidence prior to signing a DNA testing agreement. Kevin’s defense attorneys are attempting to bring this information before the court. They are also attempting to have further testing done on the blond hair that was found in one victim’s hands (which is certainly not Kevin’s, as he is African American). As for the evidence that was tested, in 1999, several pieces from Kevin’s case were released to a criminalist named Daniel Gregonis without a court order or the knowledge of Kevin’s legal counsel. The reason for checking out the evidence for 24 hours was never explained. Evidence tampering would have been very easy during this time.
In early October, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down Kevin’s appeal, sending him to the top of the list of inmates awaiting execution. While we are not sure when they will set a date, we do know that we can’t depend on the legal system to stop his execution.
We need a grassroots movement in California, one that links the issues in Kevin’s case–racism, poverty, police misconduct and inadequate defense–with others, like Stan “Tookie” Williams. Stan–a former co-founder of the Crips gang–has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his books that encourage kids to stay out of gangs. Like Kevin Cooper, he is close to execution. The Bay Area CEDP is mobilizing to stop these executions–and fight for a moratorium to stop all executions.
Kevin Cooper: Saved from Execution, Still Fighting for Justice
Kevin Cooper was wrongfully convicted of the 1983 murders of the Ryen family in San Bernardino, California. He came within hours of execution on February 9 th, 2004. The 11th hour stay was granted after a battle inside and outside of the courtroom shed light on his innocence and the numerous problems that exist in the state’s case against him.
The case has been sent back to the federal district court. Further evidence testing has begun, and activists expect a long legal fight to ensure that the issues of tampering and police and prosecutorial misconduct are raised. Overall, the defense attorneys have found new evidence and witnesses that corroborate Kevin Cooper’s innocence claim, and that show the errors and conscious misconduct on the part of the state of California.
We know that left in the courts, Kevin Cooper may not be able to win real justice. We need to continue to build a movement that can show the flaws in his case and make the connections to the broad problems that exist in the capital punishment system. We need to demand a moratorium, so that Kevin Cooper and the other 630+ inmates on death row in California do not have to face the machinery of death. Here are some of the facts about the case, the long history of police and prosecutorial misconduct, and some of the new information that has surfaced since the stay of execution.
- At least three weapons were used in the brutal murders, indicating multiple perpetrators. A member of the American Board of Pathology said it would be “virtually impossible” for one person to have committed this crime. Prosecutors were unable to account for this, claiming that Kevin Cooper acted alone.
- Hostile, racist demonstrations were held near the courthouse after Kevin Cooper was taken into custody. At one demonstration a toy gorilla was hung in effigy.
- A pair of bloody coveralls was submitted to the police by a woman claiming that they had been left at her house by her boyfriend, who she believed was involved in the murders. Police records show that the coveralls were deliberately disposed of in a dumpster by the police without any testing. The woman was never brought in to testify. This same woman has said that she bought her boyfriend a brown Tshirt that matches a T-shirt found at the scene of the crime.
- A prison inmate confessed to the crime, providing his cellmate with accurate information about the crime that was not in the newspapers. The man who confessed was also a friend of the woman who provided the bloody coveralls.
- A prison inmate confessed to the crime, providing his cellmate with accurate information about the crime that was not in the newspapers. The man who confessed was also a friend of the woman who provided the bloody coveralls. The prosecutor’s investigator took steps to make sure this confession would not be investigated.
- Kevin Cooper had no motive for committing these brutal murders and none was established at trial. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, having just escaped from a minimum security institution where he had been serving a sentence for a nonviolent offense. Police found him an all-too easy target.
- In 1983, a single, isolated drop of blood was found in the Ryen’s house at some distance from the murders. During the original trial, prosecutors said the blood came from an African-American and suggested that it provided a link to Kevin Cooper. Criminalist Daniel Gregonis subsequently altered initial lab test results to fit Kevin’s profile. He also made a number of serious errors and failed to follow proper procedure while conducting his initial tests.
- In 1999, several pieces of evidence from Kevin Cooper’s case were released to Gregonis without a court order or the knowledge of Kevin’s legal counsel. The reason for checking out the evidence for 24 hours was never explained. Evidence tampering would have been very easy during this time. These events, combined with previous mishandling, raise great concerns about the integrity of this evidence.
- The Sheriff’s deputy who found the lone drop of blood at the crime scene—as well as a bloody shoeprint that somehow was not discovered until it landed in the crime lab—recently admitted he was using narcotics at the time of the trial. He was fired from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s department for stealing five pounds of heroin—which he both used and sold to drug dealers—from the evidence locker. The blood drop and the shoeprint were the only two pieces of evidence that linked Kevin to the crime in the original trial. Recently a Sheriff who worked on the case was found guilty of stealing over 500 guns from police lockers during his tenure.
- There are a number of discrepancies between the police reports, arrest warrant, and evidence claims. An example of this is a handrolled cigarette butt that appears sporadically in these reports. Another is a manufactured cigarette that the state claims was found in the victims’ car, yet which is clearly not there in the original crime scene photographs. Because Kevin occupied a house in the surrounding area of the victim’s house, and was a smoker at the time, the police had access to cigarette butts that they could claim were found on the victims’ property.
- Despite the Attorney General’s allegations, much new information has come to light since the stay of execution that further points to Kevin Cooper’s innocence. The testing of evidence, however, has come back inconclusive—these tests do not implicate Cooper but have not conclusively exonerated him
- Only 8 out of the hundreds of blond hairs were tested, some match the victims and some are not human hair. While these tests were being done, blood reference samples from Kevin Cooper were sent to the lab for comparison. Not surprisingly, the blond hairs did not match Cooper. Interestingly, however, when they analyzed the blood sample on file for Cooper there were multiple DNA profiles, which should not have occurred. No explanation was provided for this by the state.
- The blood drop is currently being tested for EDTA, a preservative that Cooper’s attorneys hoped to find to show the possibility of evidence tampering. These test results are inconclusive, partially due to a number of errors by the prosecution, and further tests need to be done.
Here are just a few samples of the positive information that has been discovered since the stay:
1. Many new witnesses have come forth and testified to the fact that on the night of the murders, three white men were in a bar near the victims’ home, with blood on them and one wearing a light colored t-shirt. One of these new witnesses was approached before testifying at recent hearings by what was assumed to be a policeman in an unmarked car, telling him that it was “not in his best interest to speak about the Kevin Cooper case.”
2. The former warden of the prison that Cooper had escaped from testified at the hearing that the tennis shoes that the state used to place Cooper at the crime scene were not prison-issued shoes—they could have been purchased at retail stores.
3. During one of the hearings Cooper’s attorneys discovered a series of police logs. Within those logs was a June 5 th 1983 report that said that a woman reported finding a blue shirt, possibly with blood on it, very close to the bar where the three white men were seen. A police officer picked up the evidence, but was never introduced in the case and Cooper’s defense team was never made aware of its existence. Interestingly, one of the witnesses from the bar on the night of the murders stated that one of the three white men was possibly wearing a blue shirt.
4. Two cigarette butts that were said to be found within the victims stolen car were identified as containing Cooper’s DNA when the state tested them in 2001. At the time of the original trial in 1984, one of the butts was listed as measuring 4 millimeters in length. When the sate butt was measured in 2001 it was 7.7 millimeters in length. In addition, at the original trial the butt had to be taken apart for testing. In 2001 it had returned to its original shape. The second cigarette butt was listed as yellow at the time of the original trial, but in 2001 was white.
Unfortunately, the criminal justice system rarely corrects its own problems. We can. Putting a stop to this injustice, and all of the flaws in the death penalty that it represents, will take a movement of concerned community members, students, and activists. For more information about fighting against this injustice, and to read essays written by Kevin Cooper, visit www.savekevincooper.org. Contact: [email protected] or 510-333-7966.
Click here for an article on Kevin’s case: “We CAN end the death penalty: The story of the struggle that saved Kevin Cooper,” New Abolitionist, March 2004.
We can stop the death penalty The story of the struggle that saved Kevin Cooper
By Crystal Bybee
Kevin Cooper was scheduled to be executed by the state of California at 12:01 a.m. on February 10, 2004. Kevin had asked me, as an activist and friend, to witness his execution–to witness the execution of an innocent man whose courage and strength has sparked a movement–and I promised I would.
Fortunately, it was a promise I did not have to keep.
This is the story of how Kevin and his lawyers, supporters and friends prevented a horrible miscarriage of justice. But it is also about the need for a continued fight to win real justice for Kevin Cooper and an end to the racist death penalty.
Kevin’s story goes back a long way, but I will start in 1998 when members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty started working on this case. Rebecca Downer, a longtime member of the CEDP–and another of the people that Kevin asked to be a witness–was there at the beginning. She recalls the first few months:
“I first learned about Kevin’s case from another activist, Jody Cramer, who I met at the National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty in Chicago,” Rebecca says. “At the time I was organizing the Campaign chapter at San Francisco State University. We were beginning to make connections to San Quentin’s death row, but had yet to find a really strong case to work around.”
“Always looking for those willing to fight alongside him, Kevin was eager for the Campaign to get involved in his case,” Rebecca says. “Cameron Sturdevant and I drove down to LA to meet with his legal team and review the details of the case. Armed with the facts, I put together a fact sheet and a petition calling for DNA testing.
“Kevin spoke at his first of many Live from Death Rows at a conference for Mumia Abu-Jamal, establishing himself as not only a compelling and articulate speaker, but a fighter for all on death row, not just himself,” Rebecca says. “On one of my earliest visits with him, Kevin signed a membership card for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and has been a proud member ever since. From the beginning, Kevin was much more than just his ‘case’; he was and is a talented artist and writer, a determined fighter and a true and loyal friend.”
During the next few years, the CEDP worked with Kevin, his lawyers and other supporters and activists to spread the word about the injustices in Kevin’s case and in so many others. I joined the CEDP in 1999 and worked with the UC-Berkeley chapter. In 2000, I started visiting Kevin with Becky and Cameron. I was immediately impressed with Kevin as a fighter and as a human being. Working as a team, we struggled together through the ups and downs of building a movement for the truth in his case and about the death penalty. There was a lot of work to do.
The fact sheet and petition were a large part of our organizing efforts. We sent nearly 10,000 signatures to California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, calling for DNA testing that we all hoped would prove Kevin’s innocence. While we were taking his case to every demonstration and rally in the Bay Area, we also held meetings, petitioned at bus and subway stations and put on Live From Death Row events where Kevin called in to tell his powerful story in his own words.
Elizabeth Terzakis, who also began visiting Kevin in 2000, remembers hearing Kevin speak many times:
“There’s a lot of BS involved in calling out from prison–the phone doesn’t really work, there are all these beeps and interruptions from the recording machinery, there are time limits, and sometimes an inmate will just get cut off mid-sentence,” Elizabeth says. “But when Kevin calls, he just cuts through all that. All the static fades to the background, and out comes this voice, speaking about truth, justice and prison conditions to a rapt and motionless audience, taking questions about his life and his case, and answering them with clarity and honesty, but also always with an emphasis on building the movement against the death penalty. No one leaves a Live From Death Row unmoved, and no ones leaves a Live From Death Row where Kevin speaks without being moved to action.”
The battle for DNA testing appeared to be over when the state finally agreed, in an out-of-court decision, to conduct tests on multiple pieces of evidence. Although we were all aware of police misconduct during the original trial, there had appeared to be enough integrity in the evidence for DNA tests to prove Kevin’s innocence.
The testing process took longer than I had expected, and before it was completed we received some bad news. By chance, one of Kevin’s lawyers found some documents regarding the evidence being tested. According to the documents, a criminologist had checked out key pieces of evidence, along with samples of Kevin’s blood and saliva, shortly before the state agreed to conduct the tests in 1999.
I remember feeling angry that he had done it, but glad that we happened to find out about it before the results came out! Everyone was worried about the possible outcome of the DNA tests, especially Kevin and his legal team. They made motions in the courts to show their knowledge of and suspicion about the incident. Kevin wrote letters to multiple media representatives, asserting that he would never have signed the testing agreement had he known where the evidence had been and what had happened to it.
We activists wrote letters and sent press packets out trying to get our side of the story in the media and prepare people for what could happen. But the mainstream press seemed consistently uninterested in reporting the truth. Only alternative papers–such as the San Francisco Bay View, from Bay View/Hunters Point, one of the last Black neighborhoods in San Francisco–and community radio stations, like Berkeley’s KPFA, were willing to carry the whole story.
Finally, the DNA tests came back, and four pieces of evidence were found to have traces of DNA that matched Kevin’s. This was a serious blow to our side, and the state was overjoyed, surely thinking that these results would paper over the gaping holes in the case and silence the many unanswered questions.
But we didn’t give up. We wrote a new fact sheet, with the headline “Kevin Cooper: A Case Full of Holes,” both to remind people of the broader issues in the case–the racism, inadequate counsel and mishandling of evidence that characterized the first trial–and to lay out the actions by the prosecution that cast doubt on the validity of the testing results.
And then some good news. The internationally known and respected law firm of Orrick, Herrington, and Sutcliffe signed on as Kevin’s new legal team. Working with the Santa Clara Innocence Project and attorneys from the California Appellate Project and the Habeus Corpus Resource Center, Kevin finally had a team that was not only dedicated to justice, but also had the time, energy and resources to get things going our way in the courtroom.
On Tuesday, December 2, I receive an e-mail saying that there will be a hearing on December 17 to set an execution date for Kevin Cooper. The likely date is February 10, only two months away.
Despite a number of “close calls” over the years, the news comes as a shock. The UC-Berkeley campus is already nearing final examinations, and the regular meeting of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty chapter for that night was to be an informal gathering at a local café. Instead, we turn it into an emergency planning meeting.
We call for a meeting on December 5 at a bookstore in Oakland, the first meeting of the Committee to Stop the Execution of Kevin Cooper. Anti-death penalty activists from CEDP, Death Penalty Focus and the Bay Area Death Penalty Action Team come together to strategize. What will it take to stop this execution? How are we going to mobilize large numbers? How can we get the issue into the mainstream media?
The Committee sets out a very ambitious plan that includes sending out a press release, initiating a signature ad and calling for a broad and diverse Committee to Stop the Execution of Kevin Cooper. We schedule the next committee meeting for January 5 and write a leaflet asking people to come on board for the following actions:
- Circulate the governor’s telephone number, fax number and e-mail address as broadly as possible and ask people to phone, fax and e-mail him letters of opposition to the execution.
- Create, fundraise for, and get celebrities, labor leaders and legislators to sign on to a signature ad to be published in as many California papers as possible.
- Form a Kevin Cooper contingent at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. march in San Francisco.
- Build and participate in a Live From Death Row in Berkeley in late January.
- Organize statewide for a February 3 day of action.
- If it comes to it, hold not a vigil, but a march and protest at the prison on the night the execution is scheduled, February 9.
Kevin writes a statement encouraging people to engage in activism: “I am an innocent man, and while no human being has the right to murder or execute another human being, this is more than true when it comes to innocent people! We poor people, who are the only ones murdered by our government, are the only ones who can put a stop to it, and we must protest as well as pray! There can be a vigil for me after I am dead, but while I am alive, we must protest against my murder and this crime against humanity!”
On December 17, we send out our press release, and as a result get at least a little bit of our side of the story in some papers. Everyone from our newly formed committee works through the holidays, contacting groups, setting up a Web site, sending out e-mails and lining up people for the signature ad. Our goal is to get our message out to groups and churches, as well as the press, as quickly and completely as possible.
The first full-scale meeting of the Committee to Stop the Execution is held on Monday, January 5. Sixty people from various anti-death penalty groups, churches and activist and community organizations meet at the American Friends Service Committee office in San Francisco. The turnout is larger than we had hoped for, and everyone wants to get involved right away.
At one point, a longtime CEDP member Kirk Johnson turns to me and comments, “I’ve been coming to these meetings for years, and I always knew we were doing the right thing. But when I walked in and saw all of the people in this room, I knew that this was something different. This time, we can make a difference.”
We break into subcommittees that spend the first few weeks of January working hard on several areas: Press and Signature Ad, Martin Luther King Jr. March contingent planning, February 3d and 9th planning, Art and Cultural events.
The mainstream media starts calling us more during this time, and the stories they print, while still not extremely favorable, at least start to mention some of the facts that make Kevin’s case so troubling. Our Web site goes up and looks great, thanks to Josh On, who works hard to make it a resource for anyone wanting to get involved in the fight.
We also begin fielding calls and e-mails from around the state from people and groups who want to get involved. One of the things that strikes me is that many people are calling not to ask how to get involved, but rather to share ideas or information about actions they are already taking.
As planned, the Committee leads a 150-person contingent at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. March in San Francisco. Kevin’s supporters hold signs, each with a large picture of Kevin and the words “Stop the Execution of Kevin Cooper/End the Death Penalty.” The International Socialist Organization carries a banner with a giant painting of Kevin’s face on it by San Francisco State student Taliyah Cohen. Kevin tells me the next weekend that he watched news reports of the march, and remembered saying to himself, “That looks like me…That IS me!”
Participants in the march–which includes community groups, high school marching bands, labor organizations and activists of all stripes–are very interested in the fact sheets passed out by committee members, and more than willing to sign petitions calling for clemency and a new trial.
The contingent is especially significant because the annual march is generally not a political event. But this year, ours is the biggest contingent, and we feel confident in the idea that we are doing just what King himself would have done–protesting hard against the state’s attempt to execute an innocent Black man during Black history month.
After the march, the fight gains a new and exhilarating momentum. Petitions come rolling in, and members of the committee like Becky Downer, Michelle Simon, Shannon Anderson, Suzie Wasserstrom and Kirya Traber speak again and again on local radio programs like San Francisco Bay View’s “No Pigs in Da Hood” and KPFA’s “Flashpoints.” More of our story begins to appear in the mainstream press, after anti-death penalty activists, especially Cameron Sturdevant, have arguments with reporters, in which we chastise them for omitting vital information and acting like they are imbedded in the prosecution. The committee decides to bring exonerated death row inmate Shujaa Graham out from Maryland, to help with speaking engagements and provide a firsthand account of what it means to be innocent on the row–and live to tell about it.
Students at San Francisco State University, led by Kirya Traber and Brian Cruz, put on a poetry reading/band fest to raise money for the signature ad. Artists include Illiteracy, Colored Ink–and a special, last-minute appearance by Michael Franti. Just before the event begins, we learn that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has denied Kevin clemency without even holding a clemency hearing–the first time a death row inmate has been denied a hearing on clemency since executions resumed in 1992.
After a hiccup of disappointment at this setback, we redouble our efforts to get out the facts that yet another government official has chosen to ignore. Cushioning the blow is a poll in a local newspaper that shows a majority think the execution should be stopped. Also encouraging is an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle calling on the governor to grant clemency–and calling on the people of California to keep calling, faxing and e-mailing the governor until he complies.
The UC-Berkeley Chapter of CEDP works diligently through the first few weeks of the semester to put together Kevin Cooper: Live From Death Row. The event is held at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley on Saturday, January 31. The church is filled with supporters, and bursts of chants can be heard throughout the program, especially after each inspirational speaker finishes his or her powerful remarks.
The diverse panel of speakers includes Shujaa Graham; Darrel Meyers from Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation; Lynne Stewart, an attorney who has witnessed firsthand the repressive workings of the criminal justice system; and Danny Glover, who closes our event for us. Monica Hahn and Sujal Parikh, from the UC-Berkeley chapter moderate the panel, making sure that the event not only inspires individuals to support Kevin, but to become active in the fight against the death penalty. Although technical difficulties prevent Kevin from interactively answering questions from the audience, his message rings out loud and clear: that he has not given up hope and that the flawed system will be exposed once and for all.
With the execution date approaching, our anxiety is almost overwhelmed by awe at the size and significance of the movement.
Throughout the activity outlined above, Todd Chretien from the International Socialist Organization, Stefanie Faucher from Death Penalty Focus, and many others have been collecting names and money for our signature ad. Early signatories include Danny Glover, Janeanne Garofalo, Mike Farrell, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and the executive board of the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union Local 10, the union that shut down the Oakland docks in support of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Soon, we are able to add Jesse Jackson Sr., members of the California legislature, and nine members of the European Parliament. Brother Jahahara Amen-RA Alkebulan-Ma’at sends the French translation of the ad all over French-speaking Africa and Haiti to political activists there. The president of Schwarzenegger’s native Austria criticizes the governor’s decision to go ahead with the execution. The signature ad is translated into French, and circulates throughout Europe.
On February 3, our statewide day of action, the ad runs in the New York Times western edition and the San Jose Mercury News. Events are held around the state. A press conference in front of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s church in Santa Monica includes Jesse Jackson, with over 20 religious leaders from a variety of denominations. A rally and press conference in front of the State Building in San Francisco draws close to 200 people and lots of press. Seventy-five people gather to protest the execution in Sacramento, the state capital.
In Santa Cruz, over 400 people listen to Angela Davis speak out against the execution and against the death penalty. Smaller actions are held in Fresno, Riverside and at the gates of San Quentin itself. The statewide day of action turns nationwide as people from around the country spend the day trying to call, e-mail and fax Gov. Schwarzenegger. His fax machine is either continually busy, or turned off due to the overwhelming response.
During the week before the execution date, Kevin’s topnotch legal team, activists and the pastor and congregation of his church in Oakland–Jacqueline Jackson and the Cellar Christian Ministries Fellowship–are working night and day. We all attend a moving and historic church service at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland on Sunday, February 8. Jesse Jackson gives a powerful sermon that includes an urgent message for people to get involved with the fight against the execution. After the service, there is a press conference, where Kevin’s lawyer presents breaking evidence in the case, and Jackson implores the media to cover the truth about this case.
Also on Sunday, Kevin’s witnesses–CEDP members Rebecca Downer, Elizabeth Terzakis and myself, along with journalist Leslie Kean and Jeannie Sternberg–gather to prepare for the execution.
As Elizabeth says: “We had all had our hearts in our mouths for weeks. We knew Kevin’s attitude toward the execution was one of refusal: when they asked him to choose his ‘method of execution’–gas or lethal injection–he refused to choose. When they asked him to choose his last meal–to be included in grotesque detail in every news report–he refused a last meal. When they asked him to roll up his sleeve to help them practice finding a vein, he refused to help. He said, ‘I refuse to participate in this ritual of death.’
“But he wanted to have witnesses, and specifically, activist witnesses, so we could carry the horror of what we saw out into the movement. Kevin Cooper is a fighter and an abolitionist. Kevin Cooper is my friend. The knowledge that someone you know and care about is going to be murdered in a matter of hours, and that you may not be able to stop it, produces a level of anxiety that is almost indescribable. It is like being in a small room with no air and no doors or windows. It is like a nightmare, the kind you can’t wake up from.
“And I kept thinking to myself, if this is how we feel, imagine how he feels. Imagine approaching the hour of your death like a stop on a bus route. Imagine counting down the hours, like stations passed, until someone kills you.”
A chaplain explains the process to us. We need to arrive at the prison three hours before the execution, because every means available will be used to keep us from getting in. We can bring nothing in with us except our driver’s licenses. We should dress carefully: no green, blue, brown or orange clothing (so as not to be mistaken for inmates or guards). We should eat, even though we won’t want to; otherwise, we might faint. We shouldn’t take any fluids after 4 p.m., because we won’t be allowed to use the bathroom. We should dress warmly because we will spend at least two hours sitting in a parked bus.
We will be in the execution viewing room with the victims’ families and the press, and we must not speak at all or indulge in any actions or gestures that might be portrayed badly in the press. We should expect to be terrified the whole time. Because of a new law, the curtains to the windows of the execution chamber will be open. We will watch Kevin walk in, lie down (or be carried in, should he choose to resist) and be strapped to the table. We will watch the “custodial staff” insert the needle in his arm.
If Kevin catches our eye, we must not look away. At first, this seems so obvious that I don’t understand why they are saying it to us. Then I realize that, in such inhuman conditions, the reminder might be a welcome one: Act human. No one else will be. When his head drops back, or his eyes close, we will know that it’s safe to close our own.
We will be standing on risers in the back of the viewing chamber, while everyone else sits. Law enforcement officials from around the state will take the front-row seats. Apparently executions are high entertainment for law enforcement officials. We should prepare to carry the horror with us for the rest of our lives.
On the night of the execution, we all meet in the house of one of the witnesses, sick with tension. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has granted Kevin a stay, but the state has appealed the court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could overturn the stay any time before midnight. We are relieved by word that Kevin is maintaining his composure. When asked about his state of mind, Jeannie Sternberg, who has seen him recently, tells us: “Kevin is in a great state. Kevin is full of grace. He wants to live, but he is ready to die with dignity.”
Kevin has said that he won’t mind if it goes to the last minute and is stopped, because then he will know there is a movement. At 8:20, 10 minutes before we plan to leave for San Quentin, the state defender calls: the execution is off. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Ninth Circuit’s stay.
At first, we can’t believe it, and spend a few minutes alternately crying, laughing and jumping up and down. Then we get in a car and drive to San Quentin, not for an execution, but for a celebration. We join a demonstration of some 600 people. Mike Farrell and Jesse Jackson have just announced the news, and there is a general air of jubilation.
Monica Hahn, a member of the CEDP, describes the march–and her experience with Kevin in the harrowing hours this weekend: “Two days before he was scheduled to be executed, I was talking to Kevin on the phone when he said something I will never forget. He said to me, “My friend, even if they get away with killing me in a couple days, I will always be here with you all in spirit, fighting beside you. I know you will keep fighting to end the death penalty even after I’m gone, and I know that one day, we will win.’”
“I have always admired Kevin so much for his positive attitude and his passion for social justice movements that stretch way beyond his own life. The night of the scheduled execution, just after those of us at the prison rally had heard the great news that Kevin’s stay had been upheld by the Supreme Court, and that he was to live that night, the hundreds of supporters on the march arrived.
“To see the marchers, with their beautiful banners and their powerful chants echoing in the night, I felt we had won a large battle already. To see how many people had been united over the issue of saving Kevin’s life, and to see the victorious results of a successful movement filled all of us with so much inspiration. I was so overjoyed to think that the possibility now existed that Kevin might someday be able to see with his own eyes a march as powerful as this march for his life was.”
As we celebrate, speakers call for Kevin to be freed, for an end to the racist death penalty. Chants of “They say death row! We say hell no!” ring out. Shannon Anderson, one of Kevin’s friends, shares the good news over a cell phone, saying, “This makes me want to fight forever.”
February 11, 2003
The fight continues. There is a possibility for winning real justice for Kevin, but we have to keep up the fight. Kevin always says that this is not just about him, and we know that California has the biggest death row in the country. It’s about time that the machinery of death here faced a real challenge.
We will have to get right back to work making plans to keep fighting for Kevin, but also to raise the issue of how we stop executions in California. Over the past few months, the work of so many people, community groups, churches, celebrities, union members and activists has been to stop this execution. Having won this as yet incomplete victory, death penalty opponents must take hold of this momentous occasion and fight for an end to the racist death penalty in California and across the nation.
Special thanks to Kevin Cooper for being the heart and strength of the movement, the dedicated legal team for the battle in the courtroom , Cellar Christian Ministries Fellowship for keeping the faith, each member of the Committee to Stop the Execution of Kevin Cooper–and all abolitionists in California for fighting until we win.
A case full of holes
On the night of June 4, 1983, three members of the Ryen family and a houseguest were murdered in San Bernadino County. Kevin Cooper is still on death row, despite the overwhelming evidence pointing to his innocence:
- Clumps of long, blond hair–which could not have belonged to Kevin, who is African American–were found in the hands of one of the victims. Photographs of this hair were never shown to the jury.
- At least three weapons were used in the brutal murders, indicating multiple perpetrators. Prosecutors have never been able to account for this, claiming that Kevin acted alone.
- Hostile, racist demonstrations were held near the courthouse after Kevin was taken into custody. At one demonstration, a toy gorilla was hung in effigy.
- A pair of bloody coveralls was submitted to police by a woman claiming that they had been left at her house by her boyfriend, who she believed was involved in the murders. Police records show that the coveralls were deliberately disposed of in a dumpster by the police without any testing.
- A prison inmate confessed to the crime, providing his cellmate with accurate information that was not in the newspapers.
- Kevin Cooper had no motive for committing these brutal murders, and none was established at trial.
- For the full version of this fact sheet and more information on the case, visit www.savekevincooper.org on the Web.
Kevin Cooper: Live from San Quentin Prison’s Death Row
Kevin Cooper has been on California?s death row since 1985. Last year, the state of California set February 10 as an execution date for Kevin, but abolitionists rose to the challenge with a broad-based struggle–involving Kevin himself from inside prison walls and hundreds outside–that pressured the court system to stop the execution. Kevin spoke to the Campaign convention via speakerphone.
Good morning, my brothers and sisters. How are you? [A chant in the room breaks out: “Free Kevin Cooper! Free Kevin Cooper!”] We don’t have much time so I wanted to call and thank each and every one of you for your support in the fight for my life and the fight to end the death penalty. It has come to my attention that many of us — my brothers and sisters in struggle — have become somewhat discouraged because of the presidential elections. What I want you to know is that what was re-elected is the opposite of what we had to say about life earlier this year. I am living proof that activism does work. We cannot get discouraged. We cannot give up. I will not give up.
I call you, my brothers and sisters, not because we are related by blood or by birth, but I call you my brothers and sisters by choice, because you are my family. The fight for human rights is so important for every one of us. We want to continue what we started, and we cannot let anyone — anyone, not Bush, not Cheney, not Rumsfeld, or anyone else — discourage us from what we’re doing.
Everybody must fight in this movement for civil rights, for human rights, for gay rights, for African rights, for white rights, for Latino rights. Every single person in the history of this country has run up against the same type of power we’re up against right now. But then it didn’t stop them, and it won?t stop us! No one will stop us.
This time last year in the state of California I received an execution date on December 17, 2003. They were going to execute me on February 10, 2004. I was terrorized by these people. There is something wrong with that line between what is justice and what is terrorism. These people don’t see themselves as terrorists but what they did to me was outright, man-made terrorism. I do not want anybody, not any man on this death row, or any woman on death row in this state to ever have to go through what I went through — held in a cell next door to the death chamber. My life was just one phone call away from being executed.
And the only reason I’m here today is because of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and for this I will forever be in your debt. I thank you so very much.
In closing, I want to wish each of you peace and strength. Continue to fight. Do not give up and don’t let anyone — anyone — discourage you from fighting, because this is right!
In struggle from death row, this is Kevin Cooper.
Voices from the inside – Interview with Kevin Cooper
By: Carole Seligman and Kevin Cooper
Kevin Cooper has been on death row at San Quentin for over 25 years. This is an abridged version of an interview that was conducted on July 21 by Carole Seligman, a human rights activist. Prison Radio recorded the interview, and the full version is available at SaveKevinCooper.org.
You recently took part by telephone in a tour called “Lynching Then and Now,” which was sponsored by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. The tour was about the roots of the current American death penalty system in slavery in this country. Could you tell us about that idea of linking the death penalty as it is practiced today in the United States with the legacy of slavery?
The same thing that was done to slaves back in the 1700s and 1800s is still being done to us, though we’re told “times have changed.”
How is it being done? Like this: Death, in and of itself, is freedom. It was freedom for slaves then. It is freedom for slaves now. In order to keep slavery alive and well, and to keep people participating in chattel slavery, they torture people. They outright torture them physically.
They would gather all the slaves around and they would torture one and they would say, “This is what happens to you if you don’t do this, or if you do do this. You won’t just get death, you’ll get tortured.” It was the torture that precedes death that kept all the slaves working their asses off for their lives. And now you’ve got today.
Death, in the circumstances in which I’m forced to live, is freedom. It is my way out. It is the way where I cannot be shackled or handcuffed or anything that these people do to me. Death frees me from this. These people know it, so they want to torture us like they tortured Stanley Tookie Williams inside those death chambers, in order that we will not be free, as we want to be. That is just one part, but a very important part, of how they used torture and the death penalty to keep people enslaved.
Today, they say the death penalty is a deterrent. But it’s not a deterrent. The only thing it may deter people from, if anything, is getting caught. Because if people get caught, they know they’re going to get tortured. They’re not just going to get dead. They’re going to get tortured first.
The death penalty in my mind is used in order to keep people in their “proper” place in society—to keep them in line. And if you don’t do what certain people say, they’ll get rid of you.
Understand the mentality of this country. Everything they do, they kill. They kill the fish in the ocean. They kill the birds in the sky. They kill the plants in the ground. This is a “kill” mentality society that we live in. And the poorer that you are, and the darker your skin, the more these people will use these things like the death penalty and the prisons to justify doing to you whatever they do.
Slavery is alive today just as it was alive throughout the history of this country, in its various forms.
I want to ask you about the dissent written by Judge Fletcher of the Appeals Court. You have said that this dissent was unprecedented. Could you outline the main points of the dissent and tell us why the U.S. Supreme Court ignored it?
I can’t answer why the Supreme Court ignored it. They’re in their own world. But I do know that Judge Fletcher’s dissent—which was agreed with by 11 federal circuit judges—was unprecedented because it has never been done before.
In the history of death penalty cases, there have never been 11 federal circuit judges who came out on the side of a death row inmate. There has never been five federal circuit judges who said that a death row inmate was innocent or said that a state was maybe about to execute an innocent man. So that’s one reason why it’s unprecedented.
It’s also unprecedented in its length. It is 103-plus pages. And within those 103-plus pages, Judge Fletcher not only goes step by step through the history of this case and my wrongful conviction, but he also proves how San Bernardino County has violated my constitutional rights by withholding material exculpatory evidence up to eight times, depending how you count them. He exposed how the state has framed me, step by step—how they went about ignoring evidence that pointed to other people.
Throughout the history of this country, some cases have come out, maybe one at a time, where judges have lied and said a person is guilty, but judges don’t lie and say a person’s innocent! So this, together, is all unprecedented.
Some people have put forward sentences of life without the possibility of parole as an alternative for death row prisoners. What do you think about that idea?
Some people call it permanent imprisonment. But whatever you call it, it’s a death sentence. When they execute you, you’re dead without parole. And when you get life without the possibility of parole, you’re dead without parole. It’s all the same thing.
For the most part, in my opinion, these people who are advocating this idea of life without the possibility of parole, have no idea what it’s like to live in these places. This is no life! Prison correction officers looking up your butt three or four times a day. Eating food that’s not fit for animals. Being told what you can do and can’t do all the time. Being led around like an animal. This is no life. Being paid slave wages for a hard day’s work. Being told how to kiss your visitor; being told how you can hug your loved ones, and how you can’t hug them.
No, this is no life. I wish those people who are advocating these things would stop and really think about what they’re doing. If they really think this is the lesser of two evils, you have no idea of what evil is.
You’ve made a statement asking for people to help defend you and support you. How can they help?
By getting involved to end this historic and horrific crime against humanity called the death penalty. Whether or not they’re actually helping me on my case per se is irrelevant to me. As long as they’re helping to end the death penalty, then they are helping me, because I am my brother’s keeper. And my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper is me. We are all connected. My family is just as much a victim in this as other people’s families are victims. So we all have to help each other. This is my wish. That people will just get involved in abolishing the death penalty.
A doggone shame
By: Kevin Cooper
This statement, from San Quentin death row prisoner Kevin Cooper, was read to a crowd of more than 10,000 people who turned out to an antiwar demonstration in New York City on April 9, 2011.
There cannot be more of a cold-blooded and premeditated act of murder than that of a state-sponsored execution as in the death penalty! Unless it’s the cold blooded and premeditated act of War that one government in a country declares upon another.
In both cases, it’s the poor people who are murdered and physically tortured during these man-made acts.
In both instances, the planning for such an event can, often does, take years. Time, however, doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. This is because of the length of time both of these crimes against humanity have been in effect.
These two historic crimes against humanity are connected because it’s the rich who have always controlled who lives and who dies, and to me, that’s a doggone shame. Apparently, poor people and working-class people all over the world feel the same way to a degree because they are fighting the oppressors who are killing them, even if it’s an economic death that they are facing, dealing with and fighting against.
Isn’t economics part of war and part of a class system, which is part of the death penalty? All of it is part of oppression!
Please visit Kevin Coopers website to learn more about his case and how you can get involved: freekevincooper.org
Kevin Cooper is Innocent on California’s Death Row!
A recent book makes a compelling case.
By: Dan Sharber
This is a review of Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper by J. Patrick O’Connor, published in 2012 by Strategic Media Books.
Kevin Cooper is an innocent man on death row in California. And if you have been around the anti-death penalty movement for any amount of time, you most likely know this or have at least heard of Kevin Cooper. Now, thanks to the spellbinding new book, Scapegoat, by J. Patrick O’Connor, many, many more people will hopefully know his story too.
This book is fantastic for a few different reasons. The first is that O’Connor is simply a talented writer. He uses the facts of the story to reconstruct it in such a way as to build a tension-filled legal thriller in the vein of John Grisham. But unlike a Grisham novel or other true crime books of this ilk, O’Connor doesn’t just relay the story, he also spends a lot of time critiquing events and pointing out where things went wrong. This elevates the book above the level of a garden-variety true crime story and situates it firmly in the realm of political critique of the criminal justice system.
O’Connor’s strength is his unwillingness to simply let the facts of the mishandling of Cooper’s case speak for themselves and rather to hammer home the police misconduct, the prosecutorial shenanigans and Cooper’s own defense attorney’s screw ups.
Mainly, this is a simple story of racist scapegoating at its worst.
On the morning of June 5, 1983, Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica and Christopher Hughes were found dead in the Ryen home. 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 though his throat had been cut. It is important to note right away two things about this uncontested account. First, one person could not possibly have wielded that many weapons and subdue that many people. It is not humanly possible. And secondly, the only living witness Josh Ryen, initially said that Cooper was not the killer even telling a social worker in the emergency room that the murders were committed by 3 or 4 white men.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department deputies who responded to the call decided almost immediately that Kevin Cooper was the likely killer because he had admittedly hidden out in the vacant Lease house next door to the crime scene for two days (leaving on June 4th) and because he was a convenient black man in largely white San Bernardino.
As anyone reading this will already know, the criminal justice system and specifically the application of the death penalty is full of racial bias. This bias extends not only to the race of the defendants singled out for death sentences but also to the race of the victim.
African Americans are 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 42 percent of prisoners on death row. In Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Maryland, and in the U.S. military and federal system, more than 60 percent of those on death row are Black; Virginia, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Ohio all have death rows where more than 50 percent are African American. Although Blacks constitute approximately 50 percent of murder victims each year, 80 percent of the victims in death penalty cases were white, and only 14 percent were Black.
The cards were stacked against Cooper before his name was even known. Likewise, the misconduct in this case also began even before Cooper was pegged as the perpetrator.
In a shocking example of prosecutorial overreach, the District Attorney, Dennis Kottmeier had the crime scene torn down after only a couple of days of investigation. This prevented any experts from reconstructing or reenacting what happened that night in the Ryen’s home. Further, even the little bit of forensic work that was done was totally botched and contaminated at every stage of the process.
O’Connor does an especially good job of pointing out the shocking level of incompetence of both the police force and the District Attorney’s office, even prior to the racist scapegoating that occurs once they discover Cooper was in the area.
It is then that things really heat up. Evidence is now pretty conclusively planted in the nearby house Cooper hid in.
A blood-stained khaki green button identical to buttons on field jackets issued at the state prison from which Cooper escaped was found on the rug at the Lease house; a hatchet covered with dried blood and human hair that was found near the Ryens’ home was missing from the Lease house, and the sheath for the hatchet was found in the bedroom where Cooper had stayed.
These two pieces of evidence appeared a day after the house had been searched and no such evidence had been found. Both the button and the sheath were clearly planted in the Lease house. It was established at trial that the prison jacket Cooper was wearing was tan, not green. And it was never established that the sheath matched the hatchet that was used in the crime
The tragedy though is not simply that Kevin Cooper could be executed for a crime he didn’t commit but also that the Ryen family murders have not be solved and the perpetrators are still at large. The local police had access to evidence and multiple accounts from witnesses at various times pointing to a group of (3 – 4 white) men who were most likely the killers. Because this didn’t conform to their hardened view that Cooper was the murder, they disregarded all of it.
What’s more, the police even went so far as to destroy evidence. While destroying exculpating evidence by crooked cops is probably not all that uncommon, the disregard they show for finding the real killer is shocking. Shortly after the murders, a woman came forward saying she thought her (white) boyfriend was involved, as he had left a pair of bloody overalls at her house. It took many efforts on her part to merely get the police interested enough to come and pick up the overalls and interview the witness. However instead of using this new lead to expand the search away from Cooper, the police destroyed the overalls – what was likely the largest single piece of exculpatory evidence in their possession. This witness also claimed that a hatchet was missing from her garage.
In a recent interview with Prison Radio, O’Connor pointed out that “while Cooper’s trial was in progress, an inmate in a California prison told prison authorities and a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s detective that his cellmate had confessed to the Chino Hills murders, stating it was an Aryan Brotherhood hit but the three killers had gone to the wrong house.”
At this point the case just gets totally absurd. The defense attorney, David Negus, clearly did not know what he was doing and made mistake after mistake both procedurally and argumentatively. Even with a large amount of tainted evidence and clear misconduct on the part of the police and the DA’s office, Negus still did not put together a coherent defense. Cooper was unsurprisingly convicted and sentence to death row.
But the misconduct isn’t over. Clearly Cooper had some solid grounds for appeals but those too were thwarted at every turn – from the incompetent police lab techs willfully destroying evidence (only to find it again when it served their case) to the appellate judge maliciously denying Cooper all sorts of legal maneuvers for no other reason than spite.
Overall, I, even as a seasoned anti-death penalty, anti-police activist, was shocked at the level of unfairness, corruption and general incompetence that riddled this case.
There is so much more to discuss on this case that I do not have the space to get into here. Suffice it to say, this book is well worth reading. It gives an inside view of not just how one man was railroaded and could be murdered by the state for a crime he didn’t commit, but it’s also a glimpse into the very real way that this racist scapegoating happened and continues to happen throughout the criminal ‘justice’ system. Get mad and then get involved!
What you can do:
Download and share this fact sheet about Kevin’s case.
KEVIN COOPER: JUSTICE DENIED
Kevin Cooper is an African-American man who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1985 for the murders of a white family: Doug and Peggy Ryen and their daughter Jessica and their house- guest Christopher Hughes. The Ryen’s 8 year old son Josh was also attacked and left for dead, but survived. The State of California intends to execute Mr. Cooper in the next few months.
Mr. Cooper is innocent. In 2008 five federal judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals signed a 82 page dissenting opinion that begins: “The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.” 565 F.3d 581. Kevin Cooper was prosecuted, tried and convicted in an atmosphere of racial hatred. When the
police identified their suspect in the Ryen/Hughes murders as an African-American man, it set off a wave of racial hatred that culminated in acts such as a monkey being hanged in effigy outside the courthouse with a sign saying “Kill the Nigger.”
Mr. Cooper has never received a fair hearing on his claims of innocence. Commenting on the most recent proceedings in Mr. Cooper’s case, the five judges said: “There is no way to say this politely. The district court failed to provide Cooper a fair hear- ing. … The district court impeded and obstructed Cooper’s attorneys at every turn as they sought to develop the record. … [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.”
Six additional Ninth Circuit judges stated with respect to Mr. Cooper’s conviction and death sentence: “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.”
There was significant evidence that exonerated Mr. Cooper and pointed toward other suspects:
- The sole surviving victim of the murders, Josh Ryen, told police and hospital staff within hours of the murders that the culprits were “three white men.” Josh Ryen repeated this statement in the days following the crimes. When he twice saw Kevin Cooper’s picture on TV as the suspected attacker, Josh Ryen said “that’s not the man who did it.”
- Josh Ryen’s description’s of the killers were corroborated by two witnesses who were driving near the Ryens’ home the night of the murders. They reported seeing three white men in a station wagon matching the description of the Ryens’ car speeding away from the direction of the Ryen’s home.
- These descriptions were corroborated by testimony of several employees and patrons of a bar close to the Ryens’ home, who saw three white men enter the bar around midnight the night of the murders, one of whom was covered in blood. The identity of the real killers was further corroborated by a women who, shortly after the murders were discovered, 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 she saw him and two other white men in a vehicle that could have been the Ryens’ car and said she suspected they were involved in the murders.
- The coroner who investigated the Ryen murders concluded 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 in five people, two of whom were adults (and Doug Ryen was a 200 pound ex-marine) who had a loaded rifle near their side?
Mr. Cooper had no motive for the crimes. The prosecution claimed that Mr. Cooper, who had earlier walked away from custody at a minimum security prison, stole the Ryens’ car to escape the area. But the Ryens left the keys in both their cars, so there was no need to kill the Ryens to steal a car. The prosecution also claimed that Mr. Cooper needed money, but money and credit cards were found in plain sight in the Ryens’ home when the murders were discovered.
The jury in 1985 deliberated for seven days before finding Mr. Cooper guilty. One juror later said that if there had been one less piece of evidence, the jury would not have voted to convict.
The evidence the prosecution presented at trial tying Mr. Cooper to the crime scene has all been discredited:
- As found by five Ninth Circuit judges, the prosecution presented false evidence that the type of shoe that left bloody shoe- prints at the crime scene could only be acquired in prison. The discovery of the shoeprints has been called into question, and the criminalist who tied them to Mr. Cooper was later fired for stealing heroin from the Sheriff’s department property locker. At a hearing in 2004, an executive of the shoe company testified that, contrary to the evidence the jury heard at trial, the model of shoe that supposedly left the shoeprint was available to the public through both retailers and the company’s catalogue.
- The prosecution claimed a drop of blood found in the Ryen’s hallway was consistent with Mr. Cooper’s blood type. However, as five Ninth Circuit judges found, the tests the prosecution’s criminalist, Daniel Gregonis, performed on the drop of blood were falsified. Gregonis also lied when he testified at trial that he did not have Mr. Cooper’s blood as a reference when he ran his tests, and he also later admitted that after his testing he altered his lab notes.
In addition, although Gregonis claimed he “consumed” the blood spot in his testing, it twice reappeared when the prosecution thought it might help them to do further testing. Such dishonesty appears not to have been limited to Mr. Cooper’s case. A state court judge recently granted a writ of habeas corpus in another case, based in part on Gregonis’ manufacturing evidence to frame an innocent man.
The prosecution claimed at trial that sheriff’s deputies found cigarette butts consistent with prison issued tobacco in the Ryens’ car when it was recovered, but the police report at the time the car was found reported no evidence of these butts. Later, the prosecution claimed cigarette paper from one of these butts had been consumed in testing in 1984, but the paper “reappeared” in 2001 in time for DNA testing. The “reappeared” paper had inexplicably grown in size from 4 millimeters to 7 millimeters.
San Bernardino County Sheriff Floyd Tidwell pleaded guilty in May 2004 to four felony counts of stealing over 500 guns from county evidence rooms during his tenure as sheriff from 1983 to 1991.
As found by five Ninth Circuit judges, the prosecution and the Sheriff’s office destroyed, tampered with and hid from the defense significant exonerating evidence that the jury never heard:
- As noted above, shortly after the murders were discovered, a woman alerted the sheriff’s department that her boyfriend left blood-spattered coveralls at her home the night of the murders. The prosecution did not test the coveralls, and the sheriff’s deputy discarded them in a dumpster before the defense knew of their existence.
- In 1998, over 13 years after the trial, the defense uncovered a sheriff’s office “disposition report” that showed the deputy’s supervisor approved the destruction of the coveralls. That report was never turned over to the defense, and the jury thus never knew the deputy lied at trial when he testified that he acted on his own in destroying the bloody coveralls worn by one of the likely killers.
- The Sheriff’s office totally mishandled the crime scene investigation. In the first 24 hours after the murders were discovered, over 70 people walked through the Ryen house and untold evidence was lost or destroyed. The trial judge later said in open court: “Counsel, as I sat there and listened to the evidence over a prolonged period of time, I thought … [without] any criminalistic experience at all, I could have gone in there and done a better job, I think, that [the Sheriff’s Department] did.”
- In 2004, the defense uncovered the fact that the day after the murders a Sheriff’s deputy took into custody a blue shirt with blood on it found near the site of the crimes. The prosecution never disclosed this blue shirt to the defense, and it is now “missing.”
- In 2004, the warden at the prison from which the shoes that created the shoeprint supposedly came testified that, shortly before trial in 1984, she called the sheriff’s department to tell them that the shoes were available at retail. The prosecution never disclosed this fact to the defense.
- In 2001, at Mr. Cooper’s request, DNA tests were done on a tan t-shirt with blood on it found near the bar and on the blood drop from the Ryens’ hallway. Those tests supposedly concluded that Mr. Cooper’s DNA was on the t-shirt and the blood drop. In 2008, five federal judges concluded that Mr. Cooper’s blood was likely planted by the prosecution before the DNA tests were run.
- In 2004, further tests of what was supposed to be Mr. Cooper’s blood in vial VV-2 showed that it contained not only Mr. Cooper’s DNA, but that of another person. This finding throws into question all of the blood type evidence the jury heard at Mr. Cooper’s trial about a blood drop on the wall in the Ryens’ house, as well as the post-conviction blood testing.
- In 2004, when tests were done to determine whether the prosecution had tampered with the tan t-shirt by planting Mr. Cooper’s blood on it before the 2001 tests were done, testing results by the prosecution’s own expert pointed to tampering, showing heightened levels of a blood preservative used by law enforcement, including in vial VV-2. When he learned what his test results showed, the prosecution’s expert “withdrew” his results, claiming they were invalid because of contamination in his own laboratory.
That an innocent person such as Mr. Cooper can be tried, convicted and sentenced to death, and all his appeals rejected, is not an isolated occurrence. In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for the arson deaths of his two daughters. We now know that Mr. Willingham was innocent, and that the prosecution obtained his conviction by using a purported arson expert whose opinions amount to unsupportable “junk science.”
In 2009, as a result of an investigation of the State of North Carolina’s Crime Laboratory, two former FBI agents concluded that false forensic evidence had been used, and exonerating evidence hidden from the defense, in 280 criminal cases over 16 years. In three of those, cases men were executed before the truth was uncovered.
Mr. Cooper deserves a chance to prove his innocence before he is executed. Our system of justice cannot stand what Justice Sandra Day O’Connor called the “constitutionally intolerable” event: the execution of an innocent man.
For more information: www.freekevincooper.org