Kevin Cooper used to tell reporters that he wanted DNA testing, which didn’t exist when he went to trial, to prove that he was not guilty of the four 1983 murders that put him on California’s death row. If the tests implicated him, he said, he would drop his appeals.
In 2000, Cooper got those tests — and they nailed him.
DNA tests placed Cooper in the Chino Hills home of chiropractors Doug and Peggy Ryen, who were found dead with their daughter Jessica, 10, and houseguest Christopher Hughes, 11. The Ryens’ 8-year-old son Josh somehow survived after he was left for dead with a slit throat. At trial, Cooper had denied entering the Ryen home.
Cooper, who had escaped the California Institution for Men and was hiding out at an unoccupied house near the Ryen home, testified he didn’t drive the Ryen station wagon as he fled the scene of the crime — but DNA testing of cigarette butts established he had been in the family car.
Unfazed, Cooper and his team of corporate lawyers came up with a new story — that the positive DNA test proved Cooper had been framed. How else could his DNA have been there?
And since it’s California, gullible politicians have gone along with this bogus version of events.
Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed an executive order directing the law firm of Morrison and Foerster to conduct “an independent investigation” into Cooper’s case because prosecutors and defense hold “starkly different views regarding how the results should be interpreted.” Overwhelming evidence couldn’t compete with the NAACP and movie stars proclaiming Cooper’s innocence and blaming the conviction on racism, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation head Michael Rushford offered.
In 2004, when I worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, a group of high-profile lawyers sat with the editorial board and laid out an intriguing case about how an innocent man, Kevin Cooper, had been framed.
I looked into it. In short order, I talked to two men who had worked for Cooper’s defense team — only to reject his claim of innocence.
That never happens.
Investigator and former cop Paul Ingels had supported Cooper’s quest for DNA tests because he believed in following evidence where it leads. Later, when DNA tests put Cooper at the scene of the crime, Ingels told me in 2004, “It proves, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Kevin Cooper was involved in the murders.” As for the defense team’s claim that Cooper was framed, “They’re just making this stuff up.”
Forensics ace Dr. Edward T. Blake, who boasted involvement in “more post-conviction exonerations than anybody in the world,” told me he resented how Cooper’s claim of being framed cast doubt on “a legitimate process that’s out there to save people who are actually innocent.”
Two guys who worked on the defense essentially say Cooper’s guilty; that’s something you won’t read in Nick Kristof’s Cooper-friendly New York Times columns.
Kristof writes that he cannot know for sure if Cooper is innocent, but he’s more than happy to repeat the defense smear against those who put Cooper away, presumably because he is Black and they are racists.
Kristof wrote that authorities disregarded three white suspects once they saw a mug shot of “a black man with a huge Afro who fit their narrative of an incorrigible criminal” with an arrest record going back to when he was 7.
Wrong, San Bernardino District Attorney Jason Anderson responded. Authorities interviewed three other suspects, including a one-time convicted killer whom Kristof identifies by his first name, Lee, but all three had alibis that checked out.
Defense attorneys won’t recognize the damning evidence. That’s to be expected.
What Californians should not accept is a governor who won’t stand up for victims, a jury verdict, and the conclusion of post-conviction evidentiary hearings.
It’s been “38 years since our son was killed, and we still don’t have justice,” Christopher’s mother, Mary Ann Hughes, told me over the phone. Her husband, Bill, still has flashbacks of the moment he found his son’s lifeless body in the bloodied Ryen home.
“If it’s just going to be what the governor wants,” she added, “we might as well get rid of courts and trials.”
It’s clear Cooper won’t be executed, even though a jury sentenced him to death in 1985. To no one’s surprise, Newsom suspended California’s death penalty in 2019, and voters aren’t likely to elect a governor who will use it.
By letting this charade continue unchecked, Newsom has signaled that he doesn’t care if Cooper is guilty and he can’t be bothered to sort it out.
Debra J. Saunders is a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Chapman Center for Citizen Leadership. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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