Until I get a chance to update this story, this release from Kevin Cooper's website summarizes where the case stands -- which doesn't bode well for Cooper. It contains a summary of the 105-page 2009 dissenting opinion in connection with the article below.
The story of Kevin Cooper is a good example of the problems that federal courts must grapple with when an inmate claims innocence.
In his petition to the federal court, Cooper is claiming “actual innocence” and a violation of Brady v. Maryland. In Brady, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the prosecution has a constitutional obligation to turn material exculpatory evidence over to the defendant. This obligation is independent of any specific request by the defendant for such information.
According to Cooper, the State of California withheld evidence that might have exonerated him.
Kevin Cooper’s case begins on June 2, 1983, when he escaped from the minimum security area of the California Institute for Men (CIM) where he was incarcerated. He broke into and hid in an empty house in Chino Hills, about two miles away, in San Bernardino County, southeast of Los Angeles.
There is evidence that clearly puts Cooper in the house belonging to a family named Lease, and not only does he admit using the empty house as a hideout, a call to Cooper’s girlfriend at the time was placed from the Lease’s number, during which Cooper told his girlfriend that he had “walked out of prison” and that he needed money. She refused his request and later told authorities she thought he was joking.
He stayed in the house on Thursday night, all day Friday, and Friday night; he hid in the bathroom when one of the owners of the Lease house stopped by on Saturday morning.
About a quarter-mile away from where Cooper was hiding lived the Ryen family. Two days after Cooper escaped on Saturday, the Ryen family was horribly and without reason attacked. Doug and Peggy Ryen, the father and mother, were killed, as were their ten-year-old daughter, Jessica, and an eleven-year-old houseguest, Chris Hughes. Doug and Peggy’s eight-year-old son, Josh, was left for dead but survived.
Whoever committed the crime wanted to ensure that no one survived. Using a hatchet or axe and a knife, he hacked to death the parents (37 separate wounds for Douglas, 32 for Peggy), Jessica received 46 wounds, while Christopher suffered 26 wounds. Inexplicably, Josh was not attacked with the ax, but instead “only” had his throat slit.
Chris’s father discovered the carnage the next day.
The Lease home served as a sort of home base for the murderer, and evidence shows the killer returned to the Lease home at some point after the murders, according to investigators.
Tests revealed the presence of blood in the shower and bathroom sink of the Lease home, and hair found in the bathroom sink was consistent with that of Jessica and Doug Ryen. A bloodstained rope in the Lease house bedroom was similar to a bloodstained rope found on the Ryens’ driveway.
A hatchet covered with dried blood and human hair that was found near the Ryens’ home was missing from the Lease house, and the sheath for the hatchet was found in the bedroom where Cooper stayed.
Circumstantial evidence links a prison inmate — Cooper in particular — to the crimes.
- A blood-stained khaki green button identical to the buttons on field jackets issued at the state prison from which Cooper escaped was found on a rug in the Lease home.
- Two partial shoe prints and one nearly complete shoe print found in the Ryens’ house were consistent both with Cooper’s size and the Pro Keds “Dude” shoes issued at CIM. Testimony revealed that Cooper was issued Pro-Keds in the prison.
- The manager of the San Bernardino County sheriff’s crime laboratory, compared the shoe print impressions from the Ryen and Lease houses to each other, to the type of shoes issued to Cooper, and to other shoes. He concluded that the three shoe prints “all possessed a similar tread pattern, which would indicate a similar type shoe was used in each case.”
- All “Dude” tennis shoes contain the same sole pattern. The general merchandise manager for Stride Rite testified that this pattern is not found on any other shoe that the company manufactures. The shoes are not sold retail, but only to state and federal government. However, Midge Carroll, the now-retired warden of the prison, provided a sworn declaration in which she stated that she had learned from her staff that shoes issued to prisoners “were not prison manufactured or specially designed prison-issue shoes,” but, rather, were “common tennis shoes available to the general public through Sears and
Roebuck and other such retail stores.” Carroll stated that she had learned this information during the investigation and conveyed it to investigators before the trial.
- A hand-rolled cigarette butt and “Role-Rite” tobacco that was provided to inmates at CIM (but not sold at retail) was in the car. Similar loose leaf tobacco was found in the bedroom of the Lease house where Cooper had stayed.
- Witnesses testified at Cooper’s trial that he smoked hand-rolled Role-Rite tobacco.
- The Ryens’ car was discovered abandoned in Long Beach. Inside authorities found a hand-rolled Role-Rite cigarette.
- Examination of the saliva on the two cigarette butts from the Ryen car was inconclusive, but was consistent with the cigarettes having been smoked by a non-secretor (an individual of blood group A, B, or AB who does not secrete the antigens characteristic of these blood groups in bodily fluids like saliva) such as Cooper.
- A hair fragment discovered in the car was consistent with Cooper’s pubic hair and a spot of blood found in the car could have come from one of the victims but not from Cooper.
- One spot of blood at the murder scene did not belong to any of the victims. It did, however, belong to a black man, according to lab reports.
Cooper ended up fleeing south and eventually crossed the border to Mexico, where he holed up in a Tijuana motel. At some point in July, he returned to the United States, where he was arrested and charged with the murders.
Cooper took the stand during his trial and steadfastly maintained his innocence. He claimed that he never entered the Ryen house, and instead left the Lease house shortly after he called his girlfriend.
The jury didn’t buy his claims and he was convicted on all charges and sentenced to death.
We’ve seen the evidence that was used to convict Cooper, but what about that which tends to exonerate him?
One strong piece of exculpatory evidence is the eyewitness statements of the only survivor of the massacre — who did not testify at the trial after a stipulated agreement by the defense and prosecution. Instead, the audio and videotape statements were played.
In the videotaped statement, Josh said that the evening before the murders, just before the family left for a party, three “Mexicans” came to the Ryen home looking for work. Josh had never seen them before. The family then went to the party in the truck and later returned.
At some point during the night, Josh woke up and fell asleep again. He was reawakened by a scream. Josh woke Chris up, and they walked down the hall, stopping at the laundry room. Josh saw Jessica in the hallway. He walked closer to his parents’ room, and saw a “shadow or something” by the bathroom. It was dark. Josh could not see what the shadow was or what it was doing.
Josh and Chris “started getting a little scared.” Josh started to look around. The next thing he remembered was “just waking up” surrounded by the bodies of his parents.
In the taped interview with an expert in interviewing children, Josh said he heard his mother scream. He walked into her bedroom, and saw someone by the bed “turning his back against me.” Josh “just saw his back and his hair.” After his mother stopped screaming, and Josh “saw him,” he went into the laundry room and hid behind the door. Chris went into the parents’ room, and then “was gone.” Josh then went into the bedroom and “he knocked me out.” He thought the person was a man ” because women usually don’t do that sort of thing.”
Josh also told a deputy sheriff he thought three men had done it because “I thought it was them. And, you know, like they stopped up that night.” He did not actually see three people during the incident.
Josh never identified Cooper as being in the house that night.
Jessica Ryen did her best to help authorities find the man who killed her. In her hand, investigators found a substantial amount of fairly long blond or light brown hair in her hand. Because Cooper is black, it is unlikely that this came from him.
At trial, Cooper’s girlfriend testified that she believed her current boyfriend was at least present during the murders because he left soiled coveralls in her closet. She turned this material over to the police, but at trial, an investigator testified that the clothes contained only hair, sweat, dirt, and manure on them.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit ruled Cooper was eligible for another motion for a habeas corpus writ. He is seeking an evidentiary hearing asking for DNA testing and an analysis of the hair found in Jessica’s hand.
Apparently, no one had ever bothered to find out where that hair might have come from.