Civil and Human Rights

Kevin Cooper, Innocent Man on San Quentin’s Death Row

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By Carole Seligman

Kevin Cooper has been on death row for more than 25 years. But, he didn’t do the crime!

On November 30, 2009, the United States Supreme Court upheld the Ninth Circuit Court’s denial of Kevin Cooper’s appeal. The Ninth Circuit Court was bitterly divided. An unprecedented 103-page dissent signed by five judges warned that, “The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.”

On April 2, 2010, Ninth Circuit Judge William Fletcher, the author of the dissent delivered the Justin L. Quackenbush Lecture at Gonzaga Law School to an audience of legal scholars, law students and invited guests. In his speech, Judge Fletcher, outlined the facts of Kevin Cooper’s case, and stated: “Kevin Cooper, the man now sitting on death row, may well be—and in my view probably is—innocent. And he is on death row because the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department framed him.”

So far, the lethal injection challenge has prevented California from immediately setting an execution date. But the state’s intent is to re-start executions and to execute Kevin Cooper. One of the main opponents is The Campaign to End the Death Penalty. This organization exposes the racism and injustice about Kevin’s case and works to advance the movement for justice for Kevin Cooper—to free him.

Kevin Cooper was wrongfully convicted of the 1983 murders of the Ryen family and houseguest. The case has a long history of police and prosecutorial misconduct, evidence tampering, and numerous constitutional violations including many incidences of the prosecution withholding evidence of innocence from the defense (known as Brady violations.)

The 103-page dissent identified many instances of police and prosecutorial misconduct, including:

• False testimony—Josh Ryen, the only eyewitness to the murders and the victims’ 8-year old son, initially told the police that three white men killed his family. According to the dissent, after the police arrested Cooper, who is Black, “[d]eputies misrepresented [Josh’s] recollections and gradually shaped his testimony so that it was consistent with the prosecution’s theory that there was only one killer.”

• Destruction of evidence and lying at trial—A witness told the police that her boyfriend, a white supremacist gang member and convicted murderer, came to her house covered in blood on the night of the murders. She turned a pair of his blood-spattered coveralls over to the sheriff as evidence. The sheriff discarded the coveralls without testing the bloodstains and did not tell Cooper’s defense lawyer about this evidence until the middle of his preliminary hearing.

• Undisclosed exculpatory evidence—The prosecution retrieved a blue shirt with blood on it near the crime scene a few days after the crimes but never disclosed this to Cooper’s defense. “The prosecution committed a...violation by not making the blue shirt available to Cooper’s attorneys.” What’s worse, “the prosecution committed a...violation in not turning over a copy of the [sheriff’s] daily logs that recorded the discovery of the blue shirt.”

• Planting false evidence—Prosecution lab tests of a second bloody shirt showed “an extremely high level of EDTA [a preservative] in the sample that was supposed to contain Cooper’s blood.” According to five federal judges, “[i]f that test result was valid, it showed that Cooper’s blood had been planted on the t-shirt, just as Cooper maintained.”

• Falsified lab reports—A drop of blood was taken from the crime scene, labeled “A-41,” and tested by police criminologist Daniel Gregonis. According to five federal judges, “[w]hen the results of Gregonis’s tests on A-41 were initially inconsistent with...a known sample of Cooper’s blood, Gregonis altered his lab notes and claimed that he had misrepresented his results.”

• Presenting false evidence—Trying to tie Cooper to the crime scene, prosecutors presented evidence, now shown to be false, that only prison-issue shoes could have made footprints at the crime scene. As five federal judges found, these shoes “were, contrary to testimony at trial, available ... at retail stores in the United States.”

• Police misconduct—Deputy William Baird was the manager of the lab where the sheet was kept when the shoeprint was “discovered.” He testified that he already had a Pro-Ked Dude shoe in his lab, which he matched to the print on the sheet. Soon after Cooper’s trial, Baird was caught stealing five pounds of heroin from the evidence locker at the Crime Laboratory. He stole the heroin both for his personal use and to sell to drug dealers.

How could such examples of misconduct by sheriff deputies and prosecutors be found and still the conviction has not been overturned and Kevin Cooper still has not won the right to a new trial?

In the light of the public exposure of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas in 2004 for a crime he didn’t commit—an arson fire which killed his young children, which was later proven to be an accidental fire, not an arson at all—death penalty opponents are hopeful that such exposures can help stop the state executions in California and the United States as a whole. Thus far, the appeals courts have not been responsive to this or many other cases of innocent people condemned to death, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, or Troy Davis. This can only mean that the movement to abolish the death penalty once and for all must grow!

For more information and to find out how you can help free Kevin Cooper visit: