Newsom investigators dismiss inmate Kevin Cooper’s claim
The special counsel appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to investigate the case of Kevin Cooper, a death row inmate whose decades-long murder conviction has come under close scrutiny in recent years, released a report on Friday in which he cast aside the prisoner’s longstanding claims of innocence.
“The evidence of Cooper’s guilt,” the report said, “is substantial and conclusive.”
The 65-year-old inmate, convicted in 1985 of fatally stabbing two children and two adults in a Chino Hills home two years earlier, has long maintained his innocence and argued he was framed by San Bernardino Sheriff’s Deputies.
The victims were three family members – Doug and Peggy Ryen and their 10-year-old daughter Jessica – and an unrelated boy, 11-year-old Christopher Hughes. The Ryen’s 8-year-old son, Joshua, survived the attack.
In a videotaped statement played before the jury during Cooper’s trial, Joshua, the sole survivor, said he only saw a man, or maybe a shadow, in his home. After being flown to the hospital, he told a deputy and a social worker that his attackers were three white men, but he later said they were Latinos. A month later he told a congressman that Cooper, who is black, was not the killer.
As part of the Special Counsel’s investigation, which included briefings from both Cooper’s attorneys and representatives from the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office, investigators evaluated DNA evidence.
Genetic testing showed Cooper’s DNA was found in the Ryen home, as well as on cigarette butts recovered from a station wagon stolen from the family home after the murders, according to the 243-page report. According to the report, there is no DNA evidence that “points to another person as the perpetrator”.
“There is no reasonable possibility that further investigation beyond what has already been conducted on this matter could affect the conclusion that the evidence of Cooper’s guilt is conclusive,” the report said.
Cooper’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In an interview Friday afternoon, San Bernardino County Dist. atty Jason Anderson said he was not surprised by the Special Counsel’s findings. He was relieved, he added, for the surviving victim and for the victims’ families.
“Very pleased for you,” Anderson said. “Unfortunately, the closure should have come a long time ago.”
Newsom’s 2021 decision to order an independent investigation came after months of mounting pressure from Cooper’s supporters, some of whom were persuaded to act after reading about the case in a 2018 op-ed piece in the New York Times.
The newspaper’s in-depth investigation cited both an appeals court judge who said Cooper was framed by the sheriff’s deputies and a former head of the FBI’s Los Angeles office who said he believed Cooper was innocent, and the Case contains “disgusting racism”. During a hearing in Cooper’s case, the New York Times reported, a crowd displayed racist signs and a man put a noose around a stuffed gorilla.
Several months after the article was published, Cooper’s declarations of innocence continued to gain traction, including support for Kim Kardashian, who tweeted that she had met with Cooper on death row and believed he had been wrongly convicted.
In March 2021, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund sent Newsom a letter urging it to open an investigation, noting that exonerations are disproportionately likely to occur in cases involving black defendants and white victims are involved.
“No one should spend decades in prison, let alone on death row, without confidence in their conviction,” the letter said.
Two months later, Newsom appointed international law firm Morrison Foerster as special counsel to the State Board of Parole Hearings, which is responsible for investigating parole matters.
In the report released Friday, the special counsel noted that they failed to address several factors that were considered outside of their remit, including whether Cooper’s trial had been unfair and whether the charges against him or the jury’s verdict were “inadmissibly passed.” Cooper’s race had been influenced.”
They also have not investigated Cooper’s allegations of prosecution or law enforcement misconduct, they noted, except in cases where they determined they were relevant to Cooper’s claim of innocence.