S. E. Williams | Black Voice News
“The grave doubts about Mr. Cooper’s guilt have only worsened over time, with a federal judge who reviewed his case in 2009 concluding that ‘he is probably innocent,’ and more recently, DNA testing on a towel connected to the crime pointing to another person. Additionally, multiple witnesses have come forward who argue that another man has confessed to the crime and implicated two accomplices,” wrote the National Association of Colored People Legal Defense Fund (NAACP LDF) in an Innocence Appeal to California Governor Gavin Newsom in March.
In response on Monday, May 28, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a long-awaited executive order launching an independent investigation into the case involving death row inmate Kevin Cooper, The action was taken as part of the governor’s evaluation process as he considers Cooper’s application for clemency.
As explained by the governor’s office, the investigation will review trial and appellate records in the case, the facts underlying the conviction, and all available evidence, including the results of the recently conducted DNA tests previously ordered by the governor to examine additional evidence using the latest, most scientifically reliable forensic testing.
Kevin Cooper was convicted and sentenced to death for a triple murder that resulted in the deaths of Doug, Peggy, and Jessica Ryen, Christopher Hughes, and the attempted murder of Josh Ryen in their Chino Hills home in June 1983.
The San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson adamantly disagrees with the governor’s decision to further investigate the Kevin Cooper conviction by referring it to a special counsel. He claims, “We are not aware of any authority that allows for a review outside of the judicial branch of a capital case wherein every judicial actor with decision making authority for the past 38 years has determined that Kevin Cooper is guilty of the murders.”
Anderson added, “The Executive Branch is not free to ignore the outcomes of numerous prior judicial reviews.”
Well before the governor’s recent decision to proceed with the special investigation, In a letter to Newsom in March, Anderson in painstaking detail, provided his own qualifications and experience as a former defense attorney who has represented clients charged with heinous crimes expressed his belief, the case is settled. He offered his reasons for dismissing the innocence claims regarding Cooper, declared the new DNA results do not exonerate Cooper, disputed assertions made by the NAACP in defense of Cooper, and aligned himself with previous decisions in every step of Cooper’s criminal justice process who have agreed again and over again in the long years since the murders and conviction that Cooper is guilty of the murders as charged and convicted.
Despite Anderson’s protestations over the governor’s authority to call for a special investigation, however, the California Constitution gives the governor the authority to grant executive clemency in the form of a pardon, commutation, or reprieve. These clemency grants are intended to recognize the applicants’ subsequent efforts in self-development or the existence of a medical necessity. They do not forgive or minimize the harm caused.
When Newsom announced his decision to move forward with an independent investigation, his office said the governor, “Regards clemency as an important part of the criminal justice system that can incentivize accountability and rehabilitation, increase public safety by removing counterproductive barriers to successful reentry, correct unjust results in the legal system and address the health needs of incarcerated people with high medical risks.”
There are distinctions between the three executive clemency options available to the governor as follows:
A pardon may remove counterproductive barriers to employment and public service, restore civic rights and responsibilities and prevent unjust collateral consequences of conviction, such as deportation and permanent family separation. A pardon does not expunge or erase a conviction.
A commutation modifies a sentence, making an incarcerated person eligible for an earlier release or allowing them to go before the Board of Parole Hearings for a hearing at which parole commissioners determine whether the individual is suitable for release.
A reprieve allows individuals classified by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as high medical risk to serve their sentences in appropriate alternative placements in the community consistent with public health and public safety.
Officials further stressed how the governor weighs a variety of factors in his review of clemency applications including an applicant’s self-development and conduct since the offense. He also considers whether the grant is consistent with public safety and in the interest of justice. In addition, he considers the impact a grant can have on the community, crime victims and survivors.
NAACP Weighs In
“Mr. Cooper is a Black man who has served over 35 years on death row, notwithstanding serious concerns about the integrity of the state’s case and the risk that it was marred by racial discrimination,” stated the NAACP LDF.
In a letter dated March 11, 2021, the NAACP encouraged the governor to authorize the “innocence investigation,” based on what it called increasing evidence about Cooper’s guilt and questioned the possible impartiality of the investigation and prosecution of the case.
Cooper has never faltered in his declaration of innocence and has accused law enforcement of not only planting evidence but also selectively ignoring witness statements that might cast doubt on his guilt.
He has lost more than a dozen appeals and was scheduled to be executed in 2004 but received a last-minute stay by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Cooper’s attorneys insist the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department destroyed and/or suppressed evidence which suggested the attackers were three White men.
The surviving witness in the case Joshua Ryen, who was only eight years old at the time, initially said the killers were three White men, but an hour or so later he purportedly said maybe the three men were Hispanic.
However, in a video statement at trial Ryen changed his statement significantly and said he saw only one man or maybe a shadow.
He allegedly identified Cooper after seeing him on television.
Just days before the murders, Cooper, who was serving time in a Chino prison for burglary, escaped.
Investigators subsequently claimed they found evidence at the Ryen crime scene tying Cooper to the murders including items like cigarette butts, a button from a prison uniform, and a leather hatchet sheath.
Cooper was eventually arrested and charged with the murders.
Cooper has received high-profile support in his quest to prove his innocence including now Vice President Kamala Harris, California Senator Dianne Feinstein who both called for advanced DNA testing in 2018. Former California Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order for DNA testing before he left office.