Dec. 23, 2010 LA Times
Kevin Cooper's conviction in four 1983 murders is
in serious question, particularly by a federal
judge. It is up to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to
commute his sentence to life in prison.
Even supporters of capital punishment should
object to the execution of someone whose guilt is
in serious question. That's the case with Kevin Cooper,
who was convicted of four gruesome murders in Chino Hills
nearly three decades ago. Now that the federal
courts have failed to prevent Cooper's execution,
the burden is on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to
commute his sentence to life imprisonment.
On the night of June 4, 1983, three members of
the Ryen family and an 11-year-old houseguest
were hacked to death. Eight-year-old Josh Ryen,
his throat cut, was left for dead, but survived.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department
focused on Cooper, who had been living in a house
near the Ryens' after escaping from a state
prison. The day after the murders, Cooper checked
into a hotel in Tijuana. Investigators theorized
that he had traveled to Mexico in the Ryens'
Cooper was convicted after Josh Ryen testified
that he had seen a single individual or shadow at
the murder scene. Other evidence included a
bloody footprint on a bedsheet made by a shoe
that supposedly was manufactured only for
prisons, and the discovery in the Ryens' station
wagon of cigarette butts of the brand smoked by Cooper.
But much of the evidence against Cooper has been
seriously questioned, most comprehensively in an
opinion by Judge William A. Fletcher of the U.S.
9th Circuit Court of Appeals, who dissented from
a decision not to hear an appeal by Cooper.
Fletcher noted that Josh originally said the
killers were three white or Hispanic men (Cooper
is black); that the warden of the prison where
Cooper had been incarcerated said the shoe that
made the bloody footprint was sold to the public;
and that the cigarette butts, which were not
found in the original inspection of the car,
could easily have been planted. What's more, the
station wagon turned up in Long Beach.
Fletcher also noted that a woman said that on the
day of the murders, her former boyfriend had been
wearing a T-shirt similar to one found near the
crime scene. She also said he showed up at her
house wearing blood-spattered coveralls. (The
coveralls were discarded by a sheriff's deputy.)
Another woman reported finding a second, possibly
bloodstained, shirt on a road near the Ryens'
house. And on the night of the murders, two or
three men in bloody clothes were seen in a bar
near the crime scene.
Finally, long after his conviction, as Cooper was
pursuing appeals, a blood test was performed on
the T-shirt; according to analysts, the test
detected Cooper's DNA. At first, that seemed to
be the incontrovertible scientific evidence that
had for so long been elusive but Fletcher noted
that the blood on the T-shirt contained signs of
a preservative used by the sheriff's office to
preserve blood in a laboratory for later testing.
According to the judge, that suggested the blood
"had been planted on the T-shirt."
Fletcher wrote that Cooper "is probably innocent
of the crimes for which the state of California
is about to execute him." Whether or not that's
true, the judge makes a compelling argument that
sheriff's office investigators planted evidence
in order to convict Cooper and discarded or
disregarded other evidence pointing to other
killers creating not just reasonable but serious
doubt about his guilt.
This newspaper opposes the death penalty under
any circumstances, and we wouldn't object if the
governor commuted the sentences of all 697 people
on California's death row. But execution is
especially outrageous when the prisoner may be
innocent. Gov. Schwarzenegger should commute Cooper's sentence.