The Case of Kevin Cooper
How the Judicial System Fails
I’ve read a number of comments over the months that indicate that there are those who believe that if someone is convicted of a crime, he is guilty, and that if a mistake is made, the judicial system will catch it before something awful, like execution, occurs.
Kevin Cooper would beg to differ.
Kevin Cooper was convicted in 1985 for the horrendous murders of Douglas Ryen, Peggy Ryen, Jessica Ryen, and Christopher Hughes. The June 4, 1983 murders took the lives of the entire Ryen family, except for a child named Joshua, and of Hughes, a houseguest. The victims were hacked and stabbed to death at home in the middle of the night.
Cooper had escaped from a nearby prison two days earlier, and hid out for those days in a house very near the Ryen residence. He quickly became the main suspect, despite the fact that sole survivor Josh, 8-years-old, told the police that three white men had committed the crime. (He has subsequently decided that the African-American Cooper is guilty).
Cooper was scheduled to be executed on February 10, 2004, but his sentence was stayed hours before it was to be carried out so that his attorneys could conduct the DNA and other forensic testing it had requested. Some testing was done, but the United States District Court that held the hearing on Cooper’s habeas petition found no grounds for relief. Its denial of Cooper’s petition was upheld by a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On May 11, the full Court of Appeals refused to rehear the case en banc.
So, Cooper’s had a trial and multiple hearings. His conviction hasn’t been reversed so he must be guilty, right.
Not so fast. The vote was apparently extremely close, although the actual numbers have not been revealed. What has been revealed is the thinking of some of the dissenters. An extensive dissent to the Court’s decision was written by Justice William Fletcher. This opinion is a must-read for anyone who still believes that a guilty verdict means that the accused is guilty, or that our judicial system will ensure that the wrongfully convicted will get relief at some point.
Among other things pointed out by Justice Fletcher:
• A tan T-shirt was found on a road leading away from the scene of the crimes. Initial testing at the time of trial indicated that the blood on it was inconsistent with that of Cooper. Later DNA testing, done at Cooper’s request, revealed that blood matching Cooper’s was on the shirt. Cooper requested that the blood be tested for EDTA, a preservative used in drawn blood. If the stain on the shirt had a high quantity of EDTA, that would indicate that Cooper’s blood was taken from his sample and planted on the shirt. The Court of Appeals ordered the district court to conduct EDTA testing. The district court allowed the state representative to choose the samples to be tested, and refused to allow the defense representatives any say in the matter. The defense experts were not even allowed to see the shirt. Despite this, the state lab found high levels of EDTA in the samples, indicating that the blood on the shirt came from a sample with preservative in it. When the lab obtained its results, it suddenly decided that the [sample] was contaminated and that the results were invalid. The court accepted this without allowing defense experts to even see the bench notes or other documentation allegedly supporting the claim of contamination, nor to inquire into the alleged contamination. It also refused to allow further testing.
• A drop of blood found in the victim’s house was found not to match Cooper’s DNA. When the analyst found that his results did not match Cooper, he altered his lab notes and retested the sample, alongside a sample of Cooper’s blood. The results came out as a match this time. Justice Fletcher noted that the sample from the house had “a disturbing pattern of being entirely ‘consumed’ in the testing and then reappearing in a form that could be subjected to further testing.” The analyst testified at Cooper’s trial that the sample had been used up in testing. However, when new DNA testing was being done, another bloodstained chip miraculously showed up in the evidence canister.
• Shoeprints at the victim’s house were identified at trial as coming from a kind of shoe sold only to prisons. The prosecution withheld the fact that they had been told by the warden of Cooper’s prison that this was not true, and that the shoe in question was in fact sold commercially. Additionally, there was evidence that Cooper had not been issued the kind of shoe that made the print.
• There was abundant evidence of other perpetrators, including bloody coveralls turned over to the police by a woman who retrieved them after her roommate, a convicted murderer, had left them when he came home and changed in the early morning hours of the same night as the Ryen murders. Those coveralls were destroyed by the police without any forensic testing having been done. That man had been wearing a tan T-shirt earlier in the day, but did not have it on when he came home and discarded his overalls. Other witnesses saw a man wearing bloody overalls in the area earlier that night.
These are only a few of the points made in the opinion. Overall, it tells a story of police malfeasance, prosecutorial acquiescence, and judicial lethargy that is far too commonly seen in our system. We have made great scientific advances, but they are often rendered worthless in a process that favors fear over reason, bias over fairness, and cries for revenge over pleas for justice.
Probably exhibiting too much of that “empathy” we are learning is a judicial flaw, Justice Fletcher begins his opinion with the stark statement: “The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.” He is right. Kevin Cooper will petition the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, but if that is denied, he is probably out of opportunities for judicial relief. Since no California governor since Pat Brown has granted clemency, he hasn’t much hope in that quarter, either.
Of course, this case is one of the multitude of reasons that the death penalty should be abolished. I hope that it is also a reason that some people—those who read Justice Fletcher’s opinion—will reject the assumptions that juries are right, judges are fair, and our legal system will accurately sort out the guilty from the innocent.
—Daily Kos, May 30, 2009