Kevin Cooper Fights for His Innocence From San Quentin's Death Row
Not everyone on death row is guilty. According to the Registry of Exonerations—maintained at the University of California at Irvine Law School, where constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky was the former dean—on average 4 percent of men on death row across the United States are innocent.
Kevin Cooper may be one of them.
Cooper, a 60-year-old African-American man, is a death row inmate at California’s San Quentin Prison. In 1985, he was convicted of a 1983 quadruple murder and sentenced to death for the gruesome murders of a white family in Chino Hills, Calif.: Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and her 11-year-old friend Christopher Hughes. The Ryens’ 8-year-old son, Josh, survived the attack.
At Cooper’s trial, evidence that might have exonerated him was withheld from the defense. Since his conviction, Cooper has become active in writing from prison to assert his innocence, protest racism in the American criminal justice system, and oppose the death penalty. His case was scrutinized in a June 17, 2017, New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof.
The state of California intends to execute Cooper when it resumes executions in the coming months.
Cooper’s case is not just another case of a death row inmate claiming his innocence. Many legal experts and longtime human rights advocates say it is the most well-documented and well-supported matter of wrongful conviction they have ever seen. Having exhausted his appeals in the U.S. courts, Cooper’s lawyers want to raise public awareness to seek remedy for what they maintain is his wrongful conviction, and the inadequate trial representation, prosecutorial misconduct and racial discrimination which have marked the case.
Here are some facts about Kevin Cooper and his case.
In 2009, referring to Cooper’s case, five federal judges of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals signed a dissenting opinion that begins: “The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.” Six additional 9th Circuit judges have joined in the dissent, saying Cooper never has had a fair hearing to prove his innocence.
Read the unprecedented dissent by five federal judges below.
In February 2016, legal counsel for Cooper sent the following clemency petition to California Gov. Jerry Brown.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is a principal and autonomous body of the Organization of American States. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., IACHR’s mission is to promote, protect and examine allegations of human rights violations in the American hemisphere.
On April 29, 2011, Cooper filed a petition with the IACHR alleging human rights violations in his prosecution, trial, sentencing and appeals. On Aug. 23, 2011, after reviewing the petition, the IACHR issued a letter to the United States that requested “precautionary measures” such that Cooper not be executed while the IACHR undertook its investigation of Cooper’s petition. The United States ignored the IACHR’s letter. Cooper’s attorneys then presented extensive evidence to the IACHR and briefing as to how Cooper’s human rights had been violated.
On Oct. 28, 2013, the IACHR convened a hearing on Cooper’s petition. Cooper appeared by a pre-recorded statement, and his attorneys presented their arguments on how Cooper’s human rights had been infringed. Representing the United States were attorneys from the U.S. State Department. After the hearing, the United States requested time to file a brief in opposition to the the evidence in Cooper’s petition and presented at the hearing. After the United States filed its opposition brief, Cooper filed a reply pointing out inaccuracies in the United States’ presentation.
In September 2015, the IACHR released its report on its findings with respect to Cooper’s clemency petition. That report found eight separate due process violations in Cooper’s prosecution, trial and sentencing. It also found that Cooper’s trial counsel had been ineffective and cited evidence that there had been racial bias in the proceedings that led to Cooper’s conviction and sentence. The report concluded with a list of recommendations for granting Kevin Cooper effective relief, including a review of his trial and sentence in accordance with the guarantees of due process of law.
As the report states:
In evaluating the information on the record, the Inter-American Commission concludes that the manner in which certain evidence pertinent to the basis for Mr. Cooper’s capital conviction was treated in the course of his criminal proceedings and the ineffective defense provided by a court-appointed counsel, failed to meet the rigorous standard of due process applicable in capital cases and amounted to a denial of justice contrary to the fair trial and due process standards.
Reach the full IACHR final report from September 2015 below.
Many people have written letters to Gov. Brown to voice their support for Cooper’s request for clemency and urge Brown to use the powers of his office to conduct a full and fair investigation into Cooper’s case.
Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, wrote in August 2016:
Based on my decades of experience representing condemned prisoners, Mr. Cooper’s case presents exactly the situation for which clemency is intended—to avoid the ultimate injustice of executing an innocent person whom the criminal justice system has failed. … I have represented scores of condemned men and women, all of whom are poor and who are disproportionately people of color. We now know that for every nine persons executed in the United States, one innocent person is exonerated and released from death row. This error rate in our capital system is unacceptable, yet it continues because so many people on death row were subjected to racial bias and did not have the means to defend themselves.
Read Stevenson’s full letter from the Equal Justice Initiative below.
In August 2016, the Innocence Project wrote:
Since 1973, American courts have released  death row inmates from prison after a finding of innocence. A recent study determined that, conservatively, 4.1% of all death row inmates in the United States are likely innocent.
Read the full letter from the Innocence Project below.
In May 2017, Sister Helen Prejean wrote:
This brings me to the case of Kevin Cooper, which is currently before you on his Petition for Executive Clemency. The law enforcement abuses and other misconduct by the San Bernardino sheriff’s department and prosecutors in the ’80’s and 90’s and mishandling of evidence subject to DNA testing in the early 2000s as well as the actions of a Republican appointed District Court Judge in San Diego that prevented Mr. Cooper from a fair opportunity to prove his innocence, are well set forth in detail in the Petition, the May, 2009 opinion of 9th Circuit Judge William Fletcher and the book “Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper” by J. Patrick O’Connor and articles and news videos by several others who have reviewed and studied the case.
These organizations and individuals include the most prominent and well respected civil rights and human rights observers, commentators and participants, both nationally and internationally. I join them, most of whom have written personally to you regarding Kevin Cooper’s wrongful conviction.
Read the full letter from Sr. Prejean below.
Cooper’s clemency petition 30 years after the slaying in Chino Hills has stirred many emotions. His last hope of avoiding execution is up to Gov. Brown. If evidence exists that could prove Cooper’s innocence, an investigation with current forensic testing methods should be conducted. Cooper is not asking for his release. All he wants is a fair hearing on his claims of innocence.
If you want to get involved, here are some actions you can take.
Sign Amnesty Internationals’ petition to commute Kevin Cooper’s death sentence.
Share information about Kevin Cooper’s case with your neighbors, coworkers, friends and family.
Join the Kevin Cooper Defense Committee, and help them plan events and actions.
Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper about this injustice.
Invite the Defense Committee to present Cooper’s case to your house of worship, school, community group.
Contact the Kevin Cooper Defense Committee at [email protected] to learn more or discuss other ways to help.