[Pnews] Newsom orders independent probe into Kevin Cooper's conviction

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri May 28 22:13:36 EDT 2021

orders independent probe into Kevin Cooper's conviction
Phil Willon - May 28, 2021

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday ordered a comprehensive, independent
investigation into the case of Kevin Cooper, whose high-profile
quadruple-murder conviction three decades ago has been under intense
scrutiny for years.

The investigation will review “the facts underlying the conviction” and
“all available evidence” as well as Cooper’s trial and subsequent appeals,
a sweeping expansion of Newsom’s action two years ago
when he ordered additional DNA testing on evidence in the case.

Newsom, in an executive order released Friday afternoon, appointed the
international law firm of Morrison and Foerster to serve as special counsel
to the state Board of Parole Hearings and conduct the investigation. The
inquiry is in response to Cooper’s pending application to the governor for
clemency and “claims of innocence.”

The governor said he is taking the action, in part, because the San
Bernardino County district attorney’s office and Cooper’s defense attorneys
“have starkly different views” on the interpretation of the new DNA
evidence and the reliability and integrity of that evidence.

In the order, Newsom said he is not taking any position regarding Cooper’s
guilt or innocence.

Cooper’s attorneys, who have been asking for an outside group to
investigate the case since filing for clemency in 2016, applauded Newsom’s

“We are gratified that the governor has ordered an independent
investigation,” said Norman Hile, an attorney representing Cooper. “We are
confident that a thorough review will demonstrate that Kevin Cooper is
innocent and should be released from prison.”

San Bernardino County Dist. Atty. Jason Anderson said the new DNA evidence
confirms that Cooper is guilty of the murders, and he criticized Newsom for
ignoring the findings of the jury in Cooper’s criminal trial and decades of
judicial decisions that confirmed his guilt.

“We would ask the executive branch to respect the findings of 38 years of
decision making within the judicial branch that’s confirmed Kevin Cooper’s
guilt beyond a reasonable doubt every time,” Anderson said. “There are no
unanswered questions. So for this to be ordered is inappropriate.”

As governor, Newsom has been a strident opponent of capital punishment.
Just months after taking office, he imposed a blanket reprieve for all
California death row inmates and pledged no executions would take place
while he was governor.

Friday’s order comes almost three months after the National Assn. for the
Advancement of Colored People urged the governor
to launch an “innocence investigation,” saying there was mounting evidence
that cast doubt on Cooper’s guilt and the impartiality of the investigation
and prosecution.

“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 grave doubts
about Mr. Cooper’s guilt have only worsened over time,” the letter, from
the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, stated.

Cooper has maintained his innocence
throughout and has accused law enforcement of planting evidence and
ignoring statements by witnesses that could have helped exonerate him. He
has lost more than a dozen appeals and was scheduled to be executed in
February 2004 when he received a last-minute stay from the U.S. 9th Circuit
Court of Appeals.

Cooper, 63, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1985 for the slayings
of three family members and an unrelated boy, 11-year-old Christopher
Hughes. They were found hacked and slashed to death in a Chino Hills home.

Hughes’ father discovered the killings when he went to the home looking for
his son. Through the window, he saw the bodies of Doug and Peggy Ryen;
their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica; and Christopher. They had been stabbed
a total of 143 times with an ice pick, an ax and a knife. The Ryens’
8-year-old son, Joshua, was slashed across the throat but survived.

Two days before the killings, Cooper had escaped from a prison in Chino,
where he was serving a sentence for burglary. Investigators said they found
ample evidence — cigarette butts, a button from a prison uniform, a leather
hatchet sheath — that showed Cooper had spent two days in a house near the
Ryens’ after his escape.

He was arrested about seven weeks after the killings.

At Cooper’s trial, Joshua Ryen gave a videotaped statement saying he saw
just one man or maybe a shadow in his home.

But after Joshua was airlifted to a hospital following the attack, he told
a sheriff’s deputy and a social worker that his attackers were three white
men. An hour later, he said they were Latino. Later that month, the boy
told a deputy that Cooper, who is black, was not the killer after he saw
the man’s face on television.

At trial and throughout the appeals process, Cooper’s attorneys argued that
the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department had destroyed or suppressed
evidence suggesting that the attackers were three white men, including a
convicted contract killer.

In 2018, Cooper’s legal saga attracted renewed interest from judges and
former prosecutors, including California Democratic U.S. Sens. Kamala
Harris and Dianne Feinstein, who called for advanced DNA testing of
evidence in the case. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown agreed and, shortly before
leaving office, issued an executive order for the DNA testing.

Cooper’s supporters, some of whom were spurred to action by a New York
Times article in 2018, seized on some conflicting evidence in the case,
including the witness statement that the attack was carried out by three
white or Latino men.

There have been calls for an independent investigation of the case for

In 2004, Lanny Davis, the former counsel to President Clinton who headed
Cooper’s defense at the time, said state and local prosecutors who had been
pushing for Cooper’s execution were “not in a position to conduct a fair
and comprehensive investigation.”

In 2018, four California law school deans called for an independent
investigation, saying Cooper’s claim of innocence “has never been fully and
fairly evaluated.”

*Times staff writers Alejandra Reyes-Velarde and John Myers contributed to
this report.*
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