The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Black death row inmate claims police framed him in quadruple murder. A probe will now reexamine his case.

Kevin Cooper in 1983 after he was arrested on Santa Cruz Island. (AP)
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California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed an executive order Friday calling for an independent investigation into the case of Kevin Cooper, a Black death row inmate who has proclaimed his innocence for decades in a high-profile quadruple-murder conviction that’s been met with scrutiny and questions, even allegations that it was three White men who did it.

Newsom, who had previously ordered new DNA testing for evidence in the case, said the international law firm of Morrison and Foerster will examine Cooper’s “claims of innocence” and application for clemency by reviewing his trial, his appeals and “the facts underlying the conviction.” Cooper, 63, was sentenced to death for the brutal 1983 slayings of a married couple, their 10-year-old daughter and an unrelated 11-year-old boy in a home in Chino Hills, Calif.

In his three-page executive order, the governor wrote that the investigation was taking place in part because of the contrasting conclusions drawn by Cooper’s attorneys and the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office on the results of the additional DNA evidence.

“The parties have starkly different views regarding how the results should be interpreted and the reliability and integrity of certain evidence,” wrote Newsom, who has said he “takes no position” in Cooper’s case.

Norm Hile, an attorney representing Cooper, told The Washington Post that Cooper’s legal team, which has been pushing for outside counsel to investigate the case since the death row inmate filed for clemency in 2016, is “gratified” by Newsom’s decision.

“We are confident that a thorough review will demonstrate that Kevin is innocent and should be released from prison,” Hile said in a statement to The Post. “It is long overdue.”

San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson did not immediately return a request for comment Saturday. Anderson told the Los Angeles Times that the new DNA evidence, which includes testing on hairs collected from one of the victims, blood and fingernail scrapings, confirms Cooper is guilty. The district attorney also slammed Newsom for ignoring “the findings of 38 years of decision-making within the judicial branch.”

“It’s snake eyes for him and yet here we go down another road,” Anderson said of Cooper to the San Jose Mercury News.

Newsom’s executive order is the latest development in a case in which Cooper has long claimed he was framed by investigators and that witness statements could have exonerated him but were ignored by law enforcement. Cooper, who has been on death row since 1985, has lost more than a dozen appeals in court.

A spokesman with Newsom’s office did not immediately return a request for comment Saturday.

On June 5, 1983, Bill Hughes went to go pick up his 11-year-old son, Christopher, from a sleepover at the home of Doug and Peggy Ryen in Chino Hills, an affluent area 35 miles east of Los Angeles. But when he arrived around noon, Hughes went inside the home and discovered that his son, the Ryens and the family’s daughter, Jessica, had been stabbed to death. The Ryens’ 8-year-old son, Joshua, had his throat slashed and skull fractured but survived. Investigators found that the victims were stabbed 143 times with an ice pick, knife and hatchet.

Joshua Ryen gave statements to a sheriff’s deputy and a social worker that “three White men” were responsible for the stabbings, and investigators found blond or brown hairs in the victims’ hands, according to a 2018 investigative column from the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof. (The boy later said the men were Latino.) A woman had also reportedly called police to say she believed her boyfriend, a convicted murderer, was involved in the slayings after finding his bloody coveralls and noticing a missing hatchet.

But San Bernardino County prosecutors turned their attention to Cooper after evidence indicated he was inside the Ryens’ home.

Cooper, then 25, had escaped from prison a couple of days before, serving a sentence for burglary charges. Prosecutors said they found evidence such as cigarette butts in the Ryens’ station wagon, a button from a prison uniform and blood consistent with that of Cooper and one of the victims by the scene of the murders that confirmed him as a suspect. He had also spent two days at a house near the Ryens’ following his escape from prison, authorities said.

Police arrested Cooper about seven weeks later. When Cooper was detained by authorities, Joshua Ryen allegedly told a deputy that he was not the killer, according to the Los Angeles Times. But the lone survivor later put out a recorded statement for the trial, saying he saw only one man in his home, a change in the previous statements given by the boy.

The trial was marred by racism, with crowd members at a hearing reportedly holding up a sign with the n-word and a stuffed gorilla with a noose around its neck.

Throughout the trial, Cooper claimed that sheriff’s deputies had planted his blood on a T-shirt at the scene, and his attorneys argued that the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department had destroyed evidence pointing to the perpetrators being three White men. Cooper says the trial evidence was “manufactured, mishandled, planted, tampered with, or otherwise tainted by law enforcement,” according to Newsom’s order.

Cooper was found guilty and charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder with the intentional infliction of great bodily injury. He was sent to death row in 1985.

Despite Cooper’s appeals being denied and the California Supreme Court upholding his conviction in 1991, his supporters have said that other evidence, such as untested hair samples, would show there were multiple killers who were either White or Latino, the Associated Press reported.

The case has gained much attention in recent years, including from Kim Kardashian, who met Cooper to assist with his situation. Around the time Cooper’s execution was stayed, judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit questioned whether the evidence the state had on Cooper was planted.

“The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man,” they wrote in a 2009 dissent.

The push by Cooper’s attorneys for essential DNA testing was initially denied by the office of Kamala D. Harris, then the California attorney general. After Kristof’s column was published in 2018, Harris, years before becoming vice president, told New York Times, “I feel awful about this,” and said she hoped Cooper would be granted the DNA testing. The decision during Harris’s time as state attorney general later came up in a tense moment during a Democratic presidential debate in 2019.

The executive order Friday was celebrated by the NAACP, which has pushed for an investigation of Cooper’s case for months. The organization’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund wrote in a March letter that the case against Cooper “was doubtful from the beginning.”

“Mr. Cooper is a Black man who has served over 35 years on death row, notwithstanding serious concerns about the integrity of the state’s case and the risk that it was marred by racial discrimination,” the group wrote. “The grave doubts about Mr. Cooper’s guilt have only worsened over time.”

Meagan Flynn contributed to this report.

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