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Incarceration Nation

Kevin Cooper Again Denied Justice by the State of California

By Carole Seligman

Kevin Cooper, an innocent man framed and convicted of a brutal murder of three Ryan family members and another child, Christopher Hughes, in Chino Hills, San Bernardino County, in Southern California in 1983 has served thirty-eight years on death row at San Quentin State Prison. For decades Cooper has been fighting for exoneration. In the process he has become a prolific writer, forceful speaker, and active advocate for abolition of the death penalty, as well as his own advocate and leading participant in his legal defense efforts. Over the years, Cooper’s case has been examined, investigated, and exposed as a frame-up by writers, artists and social justice activists, Black Liberation leaders, prominent journalists, prison reformers, and many others. But, at each new juncture in his fight for justice, the state—cops, prosecutors, and courts— have denied Cooper’s struggle for exoneration and freedom. The latest blow has come from California Governor Newsom’s administration.

The latest chapter in this struggle comes from Governor Gavin Newsom’s representative David Sapp, the Legal Affairs Secretary of California. In an October 4th letter to Cooper’s lead attorney, Rene Kathawala, Sapp committed a real travesty of immoral, untruthful, cruel, and vicious proportions. His letter uses polite words, that compliment Kevin’s legal team’s “dedication and diligence.” But this polite fašade does not hide the essence of the letter, which unequivocally supports the guilty verdict and conviction of Kevin Cooper!

In 2021, Governor Newsom ordered an independent innocence investigation of Cooper’s case and turned this over to a law firm, Morrison Foerster. The law firm outsourced the investigation to a group of so-called “experts,” all with strong connections to California law enforcement entities, (including a cop with a criminal record,) none of whom were qualified experts in DNA, witness reliability, or crime scene analysis, that they purported to be. So, this investigation, which took over a year to produce, was not independent or impartial. It was entirely biased and bogus, and, as such, it concluded that Cooper was guilty as charged and it upheld the conviction!

Kevin’s legal team produced a lengthy and thorough rebuttal to every aspect of this “investigation.” They hired experts with long experience in all aspects of the case and submitted it to the Governor’s office.

Sapp’s letter ignored the many issues of innocence raised by the rebuttal and instead raised the truly stupid argument that just because there were admitted “procedural errors in the investigation and prosecution” of this murder case, it doesn’t undermine the conviction! But, procedural errors are hardly the basis of Kevin Cooper’s strong defense against this blatant frame up. This case was tainted from the beginning by racism, corruption, and malfeasance in all aspects of the police, prosecution, and court proceedings.

  • Racism informed the sheriff’s investigation, in which witness reports of several white individuals driving the victims’ vehicle were dropped in order to focus on a single Black person. Racism allowed the initial investigation to ignore firsthand reports of white individuals wearing blood-soaked clothing in a bar in the vicinity of the murders. Racism stirred up public demonstrations (with “Hang the Nigger” signs) against Kevin Cooper, tainting the court and jury proceedings.
  • Corruption plagued the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department and the crime lab charged with analyzing evidence from the crime scene. Leading individuals in the Sheriff’s Department were caught stealing large quantities of heroin and weapons from the evidence lockers. The crime lab investigator was found to have mixed blood samples in his possession and lied in court about this. Sheriff’s deputies disposed of important exculpatory evidence (such as bloody coveralls belonging to a convicted murderer,) and lied about it to the court; important exculpatory evidence was withheld and tampered with.
  • Malfeasance contaminated this case on every level. The original police investigators misrepresented several discoveries pointing to multiple killers of the Ryan family and Christopher Hughes, including the discovery of two bloody t-shirts discarded near the victims’ home. The victims’ car, when found, had blood stains on three seats. Where is the result of testing of this blood? Why, in a blood-soaked crime scene where four people were slaughtered, was one drop of blood (that had demonstrably been mishandled in the crime lab, mixed with another person’s blood!) said to be Cooper’s blood? Why was testimony about key evidence of the prison warden from the facility Cooper had walked away from, excluded from court testimony? Why was the crime scene struck only three days after the crime, and then allowed to deteriorate in a warehouse? These are only a few of the multiple examples of malfeasance.

Upholding the results of Mr. Cooper’s frame up conviction (and the 40 years spent in prison) cannot be defended on the basis of the bogus investigation report with a few “procedural errors” as Mr. Sapp, on behalf of the Governor, does. His letter flies in the face of a mountain of evidence of Mr. Cooper’s innocence, affirmed by scrupulous investigations by Mr. Cooper’s attorneys David Alexander and Norman Hile for 20 years from the law firm of Orrick, Herrington, and Sutcliffe, LLP; J. Patrick O’Connor1; Nicholas Kristof2; Erin Moriarty3; the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (of the OAS) in 2015, and many others.

The Orrick law firm representing Kevin Cooper pro bono was initially recruited to represent Cooper by the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP), an organization responsible for several exonerations of prisoners held for multiple years fighting for their freedom after state frame ups. An attorney who represented one of the exonerees honored at an October 5th NCIP S.F. event said, during her presentation that for every one of the innocent people who had won exoneration nationally, there were a thousand still incarcerated!

This is a horrifying fact that profoundly illustrates the real nature of the U.S. “justice” system, a system that brings together the forces of the state—the police, the prosecutors, and the courts—to bolster the power of the capitalist state to rule on behalf of a ruling class who operates with violence of heavily armed police and the violence of prisons only to keep its entrenched system of inequality in unchallenged power.

Readers are urged to learn about Kevin Cooper’s case (www.freekevincooper.org), to educate others about it, and join the struggle to win his freedom.

Write to:

Kevin Cooper #C-65304 4-EB-82

San Quentin State Prison

San Quentin, CA 94974



1 John Patrick O’Connor is the author of Scapegoat, the Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper.

2 Nicholas Kristof is a New York Times journalist and columnist.

3 Erin Moriarty is a producer of CBS Television Series, 48 Hours and a podcaster.