Political Prisoners

Save the Life of Kevin Cooper!

By Carole Seligman

“I guess the bottom line is this—we all have to make real-life decisions at one time or another in our lives. I decided to live-and not die just because I was sentenced to die.”

This statement by San Quentin inmate, Kevin Cooper—on death row for 25 years—convicted of a crime he didn’t do, exemplifies the commitment and spirit of the man. Cooper devotes himself to the struggle for human rights from inside the torture chamber that is San Quentin. And this is really amazing because Cooper’s case is a portrait of everything that is wrong about the American “justice” system, from racist police departments, racist prosecutors, corrupt and drug-addicted cops, racist judges, to Draconian laws that (like the cases of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Troy Anthony Davis) keep evidence of actual innocence out of the appeals process, and courts that allow such travesties to continue.

In 1985, Kevin Cooper was convicted of capital murder for the brutal killing of four people, three from one family, in 1983, in San Bernardino, California. He was scheduled to be executed February 10, 2004. The execution was halted at the last minute after Cooper suffered the torture of being readied for lethal injection in San Quentin’s death chamber. [See Kevin’s essay, “Making a life for myself in this living hell”]. At this time, Kevin is waiting (for over a year) for a decision appealing the ruling of a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld his death sentence. He is appealing for a hearing in front of a larger panel of the court, called an en banc hearing. His last court victory (the stay of execution in February 2004) was granted by such an en banc panel.

 The main fact, from the very beginning of this case, that made Cooper’s arrest and conviction insane (but, perhaps this word is too kind), was that the child victim, Joshua Ryen, who, with his throat slashed, survived the attack on his family, “stated that there were three assailants, not one, and that they were not African-American. On two different occasions, when Josh saw a photograph of Mr. Cooper’s face on television, he expressly and affirmatively stated that Mr. Cooper was not the person that committed the crimes.” [Quote from Kevin Cooper’s Petition for Writ of Habeus Corpus and Request for Stay of Execution, February 6, 2004].

And this witness statement is only one of many, many pieces of evidence of Cooper’s innocence, which no jury has heard. Kevin Cooper was near, not at, the wrong place at the wrong time; and that seems to be the entire substance of the prosecution’s case, which was based entirely on circumstantial evidence, all of which has been disproved by Kevin and his attorneys, the legal firm of Orrick, Herrington, & Sutcliffe. Most of the evidence that points to Kevin Cooper’s innocence was known to the prosecution, but not the defense, at the time of Kevin’s trial.

In 1983 Kevin Cooper was a prisoner, serving time in San Bernardino Men’s Prison for a non-violent crime committed in his youth. He walked out of prison, through a hole in the fence, and hid in an empty home near the Ryen home where the brutal murders took place. The fact that he was Black in a white neighborhood, and a prisoner, must have played a role in turning the sole attention of the police to Kevin Cooper, despite so much evidence that multiple non-black people were the killers, including sightings of three men in the Ryen’s stolen car after the murders took place.

The jury never heard Cooper’s evidence

The jury never learned what the prosecution knew: that a pair of bloody coveralls, belonging to one of the men seen in the Ryen’s stolen car after the murder (a man who had previously served prison time for murder!), was turned in to the police by the former girlfriend of the owner of the coveralls. They never learned that the coveralls were destroyed by a deputy sheriff with the permission of a supervisory officer!

The jury never learned about a critical piece of evidence that the prosecutors of Kevin Cooper knew. There was a confession from a man, Kenneth Koon, who implicated the wearer and owner of the bloody coveralls and knew the woman who turned them in to the police.

The jury never heard many witnesses testify that on the very night of the Ryen murders they saw three white men, one in bloody clothing, at the Canyon Corral Bar, close to the Ryen home. These witnesses have been corroborated by other witnesses who have come forward since the 2004 stay of execution.

An important piece of evidence, known to the prosecution, but kept from the defense at the trial, was a blue shirt with blood on it found near the crime scene. Nor did they hear from a witness from the bar that one of the three men was wearing a blue shirt.

A critically important piece of evidence was kept from the jury: William Baird, the manager of the San Bernardino County Crime Lab, the person in charge of the “evidence” used by the prosecution to argue Cooper’s guilt, had the exact pair of shoes that had made the bloody footprint supposedly found at the crime scene. Actually, the footprint was discovered at the crime lab, not the crime scene. Baird, unbeknownst, to the jury, was a heroin addict subsequently fired from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department for stealing five pounds of heroin from an evidence locker. That’s a lot of heroin!

The jury that convicted Kevin Cooper heard from the prosecution that the tennis shoes, used as evidence to convict him (the bloody footprint), were “solely prison-issued” shoes. They never heard from Midge Carroll, the Warden of Chino prison, who told the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department that these shoes were sold in retail stores and widely available. The prosecutor knew these facts, but illegally kept them from the defense, violating the Brady v. Maryland decision (1963) of the U.S. Supreme Court, which requires prosecutors to turn over evidence to the defense that would be helpful to the defendant. It’s called exculpatory evidence.

The Petition for Writ of Habeus Corpus, the appeal, filed by Kevin Cooper’s attorneys in 2004 contains statements by several jurors who served on the jury that convicted Cooper in 1985. These statements decry the hiding and destroying of evidence by law enforcement, the lack of testing of evidence, police misconduct, and even call for the state not to carry out the death sentence.

Circuit court judge questions conviction

This is a quotation from the 2006, concurring (but seemingly dissenting) opinion by Circuit Judge Margaret M. McKeown, of the U.S. District Court of Appeals:

“Significant evidence bearing on Cooper’s culpability has been lost, destroyed or left un-pursued, including, for example, blood-covered coveralls belonging to a potential suspect who was a convicted murderer, and a bloody t-shirt, discovered alongside the road near the crime scene. The managing criminologist in charge of the evidence used to establish Cooper’s guilt at trial was, as it turns out, a heroin addict, and was fired for stealing drugs seized by the police. Countless other alleged problems with the handling and disclosure of evidence and the integrity of the forensic testing and investigation undermine confidence in the evidence.”

How is it possible for a judge to write such words and still concur with a decision that allows Kevin Cooper’s conviction to stand and the state to execute him? This judge says in her opinion, that the court is constrained by provisions in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). As in other capital cases, this legislation (passed during the Clinton Administration,) uses fancy language to allow death sentences to be carried out without full rights to appeal and without the absolute human right to prove innocence!

Recently, this writer has become friends with Kevin Cooper. I have met him and visited with him in San Quentin’s death row visiting cages, where prisoner and visitor are locked in dog-kennel-size cages for the visit. Our conversations are wide ranging and I have learned a lot from him. Kevin is a dedicated fighter for human rights. He is interested in many things, and reads widely, with a special focus on Black history. During our conversation in February, he gave his opinion that the struggles going on around the world are linked as struggles for human rights. The desire for human rights, the struggle for those rights, is, he said, what everyone, world wide, has in common; that the struggle to abolish the death penalty, to end the prison-industrial complex, to end war, to end racism, to support women’s dignity and rights—all of these are rooted in our common need for human rights. I agree with his view that the world’s oppressed people have much more in common than the differences between them.

Like Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Troy Anthony Davis, Kevin Cooper is interested in justice for all, not just for himself. Although, like Mumia and Troy, the struggle for justice in Kevin’s case has extended over many years. Kevin has grown from a youth to a grown man incarcerated on death row, behind bars. In a system that incarcerates the innocent, and even sanctions their execution, that tortures them, even prepping them for executions some of which have been stopped at the last minute (like these three cases); Kevin’s hold on his sanity seems miraculous to me. Not only is Kevin Cooper sane, intelligent and generous; he makes a genuine contribution to the struggle for human rights under the worst possible conditions.

Readers of Socialist Viewpoint are urged to support Kevin’s struggle for justice. Information about Kevin’s case, Kevin’s essays, and how to make donations to his defense can be found at and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty at P.O. Box 25730, Chicago, IL 60625,