This story is the twenty-second in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.
In a wealthy neighborhood of ranches thirty miles east of Los Angeles, a home was broken into in the early morning hours on a June night in 1983 and three members of the family, along with a family friend, were brutally killed.
Deputies responding to the scene found the bodies of Douglas and Peggy Ryen; their daughter Jessica, 10; and Christopher Hughes, 11, apparently hacked to death, in a blood-covered bedroom. Hughes had been sleeping over at the home of his friend Joshua Ryen, 8, whom deputies found badly wounded but alive.
The family station wagon was missing, and two blood-stained T-shirts, one blue and one tan, and a hatchet covered with dried blood were found near the home.
Within days, the local sheriff’s office focused on a career criminal named Kevin Cooper.
There was a good reason that Cooper became a suspect: He had escaped from prison two days before and was hiding out in an empty home in the Chino Hills community just doors away from the murder scene. In fact, Cooper had a long history both of crimes and of escapes. And though he maintained his innocence, prosecutors noted his history of false stories and fake identities that made anything he said untrustworthy.
The day after the murders, Cooper checked into a motel in Tijuana, Mexico, and he found work on a boat in Mexico where he worked for two weeks until he was arrested. An angry crowd greeted his return to the San Bernardino County jail with chants of “Gas chamber, gas chamber.”
His trial included 141 witnesses and 788 exhibits. The evidence included a hatchet, supposedly missing from the home where Cooper was hiding out, that was covered with dried blood and which prosecutors contended had been used to kill the victims. Though Joshua Ryen didn’t testify, two recorded interviews of him were admitted at trial, during which he said he’d seen only one man, or one man’s shadow, during the crime.
Prosecutors introduced prints of tennis shoes that an inmate who worked in the prison equipment room testified he had given to Cooper. They introduced evidence that saliva consistent with Cooper’s blood type was found on cigarette butts that prosecutors said were recovered from the Ryen home. A single drop of blood that was consistent with Cooper’s profile was said to be discovered inside the home.
Outside, demonstrators carried signs saying, “Kill Cooper” and using a racial slur to urge the “hanging” of Cooper, who is black.
The jury deliberated six days before finding Cooper guilty; ten days later, the jurors recommended a death sentence.
Cooper has remained on death row for more than 30 years, with a series of state and federal courts turning away his appeals.
But starting at the time of his arrest and continuing for years, mounting evidence has cast doubt on Cooper’s guilt.
When Joshua Ryen first saw Cooper’s photograph on television after his arrest, he blurted out to his grandmother that Cooper was not the attacker, Ryan’s grandmother testified. Ryen had described the perpetrators to a social worker at the hospital as three white men.
Other witnesses had described seeing three white men in a station wagon resembling the missing one, or white strangers drinking at a bar near the Ryen home that night.
In fact, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department had initially issued a bulletin identifying the suspected perpetrators as three “white or Mexican males.”
The Ryen’s station wagon was recovered abandoned in a church parking lot in Long Beach, California — 125 miles from the Tijuana motel where Cooper was staying within a day of the slaying.
Multiple hairs that could have been ripped from someone’s head during a struggle, found clutched in Jessica Ryen’s right hand, did not belong to a black man, forensics experts concluded.
Doubts also surrounded whether the massacre could have been carried out by one man, much less one who weighed 155 pounds, especially given that Douglas Ryen, an ex-Marine, stood six-two and kept a loaded rifle near his bed. Peggy Ryen also kept a loaded pistol in her bedside drawer.
On the day the charges against Cooper were announced, a woman named Diana Roper called the sheriff’s office saying that she believed the murders had been committed by her boyfriend, Eugene Leland Furrow, who was white and had until recently been in prison for murder.
Roper said that early on the morning after the murder, Furrow appeared at her home driving a station wagon and wearing blood-spattered coveralls, which she turned over to the sheriff’s office. She also said that on June 4 she had laid out clothes for Furrow, including a tan T-shirt, which was gone. After learning that a hatchet linked to the Ryen murders had been found, Roper called the sheriff’s office back to say she had checked his tool chest and found his hatchet missing.
Despite her claims, Furrow was not seriously pursued as a suspect and police destroyed the bloody coveralls without testing them.
Prosecutors waited until the midst of trial to disclose to the defense that sheriff’s officers had interviewed two state prisoners who corroborated Joshua’s initial contention that three men had committed the murders, and Diana Roper’s contention that Furrow was likely involved. In the first interview, from Dec. 17, 1984, Anthony Wisely claimed his cellmate Kenneth Koon had implicated himself and two other men in the crime. In a second interview two days later, Koon, who had been out of prison between Oct. 11, 1982 and Nov. 7, 1983 and had moved in with Roper after Furrow moved out, denied involvement in the crime but said he was aware that “Lee Farrel [sic] had left bloody coveralls at Roper’s home.”
Ten days later, a defense investigator interviewed Wisely who said that he had no doubt of Cooper’s innocence. However, Deputy Public Defender David Negus did not pursue the matter and the jury that convicted Cooper and sentenced him to death never heard of Wisely and Koon’s statements.
Since then, the California and federal courts have consistently rejected claims that Cooper was wrongly convicted.
Prosecution agreed to DNA testing of certain evidence, which resulted in what the prosecution argued was confirmation of guilt – Cooper’s blood on the recovered tan T-shirt.
But Cooper contended that the blood had been planted – prior to his trial, the shirt did not have blood on it that matched his type. He sought testing of the T-shirt blood for a preservative called EDTA that, if found, would indicate the blood was in fact planted. He also sought DNA testing of the hairs in Jessica Ryen’s hand which would either identify or eliminate Cooper as their source.
At one point, Cooper’s execution was stayed just a day before his scheduled execution to allow the DNA testing Cooper sought.
After the results came in, U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn L. Huff ruled that the new testing had failed to undermine the previous finding, and refused to grant a new trial.
On appeal, a Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel refused to disturb that decision. And when Cooper’s attorneys asked the full court to reconsider the case, the majority declined without a decision.
But ten judges joined a rare 100-page dissent written by U.S. Court of Appeals Judge William Fletcher, that begins, “The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.”
Fletcher wrote that “there is no way to say this politely,” writing that Judge Huff had both “failed to provide Cooper a fair hearing” and “flouted our direction” to provide the testing that Cooper sought.
Huff, the dissent states, “impeded and obstructed Cooper’s attorneys at every turn” as they sought to develop the record, saying she set unreasonable conditions on the teetering, improperly limited testimony, and “found facts unreasonably” based on a “truncated and distorted record.”
Fletcher’s dissent lays out numerous reasons to believe that the evidence was gathered and processed under “suspicious circumstances,” calling “the most egregious, but by no means the only, example is the testing of Cooper’s blood on the t-shirt,” noting that the lab first reported the EDTA preservative in the blood — which would suggest that Cooper’s blood may have been transferred to the t-shirt.
At a 2013 panel in New York, Fletcher neatly summed up his view of the case: “He is on death row because the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department framed him.”
Responding to a clemency petition, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered in his final days in office, that the blood on the tan t-shirt be retested. Brown stated he was taking no position on guilt or innocence, but “colorable factual questions” justified renewed testing.
Cooper’s attorneys then went back to Huff, who in August directed the Department of Justice to release the t-shirt for new testing.