Incarceration Nation

Death Row Inmate Asks California Governor Newsom for Innocence Investigation

By Kevin Cooper

Update: On February 22, Governor Newsom issued an Executive Order ordering DNA testing on the additional five items Kevin refers to below. Death penalty abolitionists continue to press for a full innocence investigation and the formation of an independent Innocence Commission, like ones set up in other states that have led to exonerations.

On his way out of office, Governor Jerry Brown ordered limited DNA testing in my capital murder case, but it will take the broader investigation I requested if I’m going to have a meaningful opportunity to prove my innocence.

Old cases like mine require substantial investigations to prove innocence. Numerous judges, others in the legal community and investigative reporters have concluded that the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department framed me in 1983 for a crime I did not commit—the horrific murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen and their daughter, Jessica, 10, and of their neighbor, Christopher Hughes, 11. Josh Ryen, 8, survived and said from his emergency room bed the killers were three white men. I am Black.

As Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William Fletcher put it in 2009, the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department “manipulated and planted evidence in order to convict Cooper. In the course of their investigation, the sheriff’s office personnel discounted, disregarded, and discarded evidence pointing to other killers.” Finding out what happened to that evidence that was planted, disregarded and discounted, and testing what evidence might still exist, is crucial to show I did not commit the “Chino Hills” murders.

The sheriff’s department has numerous documents never given to my lawyers that will show how exonerating information was ignored and evidence used to convict me was falsified. The documents will show I am innocent, could lead to the real killers and, hopefully, uncover who in the sheriff’s department framed me.

In my February 2016 clemency petition to Governor Brown, I asked for an “innocence investigation” and listed the type of documents I need the courts to review: one showing what happened to a blue short-sleeve shirt with blood on it that was found near the crime scene and disappeared in the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department’s custody; and another proving Midge Carroll, warden of the California Institution for Men from which I had escaped, called the sheriff’s department to correct the prosecution’s false claim that crime-scene shoe prints were from shoes sold exclusively to prisons. (The shoes were available at retail stores.) Some jurors said this claim helped lead them to find me guilty.

I want documents relating to testing done on incriminating cigarette butts in the Ryens’ station wagon, and documents from the Scripps Research Institute that initially concluded there were high levels of the blood preservative ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) in a spot of my blood found with Doug Ryen’s blood on a medium-size, tan T-shirt believed to be worn by the killer. I wear a size large.

The EDTA results, presented in my 2004 habeas hearing, proved the blood was taken from a vial of blood drawn when I was arrested and planted on that shirt. The test result was withdrawn after its import became known, and the judge refused to grant another. The vial later was found to have my blood and the blood of at least one unknown person. I want to see the chain of custody for that tan T-shirt that went missing from the sheriff’s department evidence locker for many months prior to trial.

Also, I would ask for any documents relating to a sheriff’s department attempt to intimidate a witness into not testifying in my 2004 habeas hearing about seeing three strangers with blood on them in a neighborhood bar near the crime scene the night of the Ryen-Hughes murders. The witness testified anyway.

Some testing was done, but testing was withheld from tiny blood spots found near a slightly larger blood spot, the only piece of evidence that supposedly linked me to the Ryens’ house. My lawyer believes the large blood spot was planted; a test for EDTA on the larger spot (marked as exhibit A-41) was denied by the judge in 2004.

We need the test results from the smaller spots, which I believe could exonerate me.

For unknown reasons, Governor Brown did not grant five of the DNA tests I requested, tests I believe could show who committed these murders and establish my innocence, including DNA tests of hairs clutched in the victims’ hands as well as the victims’ fingernail scrapings. Why withhold these tests?

Appellate courts are virtually blocked from considering innocence claims—that’s why it sometimes takes 20 years or more for innocent people to be exonerated. In California, we do not have an innocence commission dedicated to investigating innocence claims. The governor does have the power to order such investigations related to clemency and to obtain documents that have been denied to a person trying to prove his innocence. The judge assigned could oversee the testing of the items denied and conduct a wider investigation of the evidence.

I now ask Governor Gavin Newsom to use those powers in my case.

San Francisco Chronicle, January 24, 2019

Kevin Cooper is an innocent man on San Quentin’s Death Row in California. He continues to struggle for exoneration and to abolish the death penalty in the whole U.S. Learn more about his case at:

Write to:

Kevin Cooper #C-65304 4-EB-82

San Quentin State Prison

San Quentin, CA 94974