By PAUL M.
In the struggle to prove his innocence, death-row inmate Kevin Cooper has always had to contend with police corruption. Although he won the right to DNA testing last December, his defense team recently made a shocking discovery-key evidence just about to undergo testing may have been tampered with. The results of the DNA tests could determine whether Cooper lives or dies.
Kevin Cooper is currently serving the 16th year of a death sentence at San Quentin State Prison in California. In 1985 he was convicted of murdering a Southern California family in their home, a crime which evidence indicates he didn’t commit. The only eyewitness, for example, repeatedly told police that Cooper was not the killer. (For further details on the case and evidence of Cooper’s innocence see Socialist Action, February 2001.)
His conviction was due in large part to the deliberate steps taken by authorities to target Cooper. For example, police consciously choose not to investigate another man who was likely involved with the murders, and destroyed a pair of bloody coveralls that could have linked him to the crime.
On the other hand, police went out of their way to “find” evidence implicating Cooper, which often turned up under suspicious circumstances.
A bloody shoe print on a bed sheet that matched a pair of shoes worn by Cooper was central to his conviction. It was not found until over a week after the murders, when Cooper was already the only suspect, and not at the scene of the murders, but in the crime lab. A pair of shoes identical to Cooper’s was also in the lab at the time.
When his attorneys went back to the evidence locker years later to search for DNA evidence, they discovered that the print had been cut out of the sheet. Authorities in charge of the evidence could not explain this.
William Baird, the officer who found the shoe print and other evidence placing Cooper at the crime scene, has a well-established record of corruption. By his own admission he was using narcotics at the time of Cooper’s trial, and he was fired shortly afterward for stealing heroin from the evidence locker both for personal use and to sell to drug dealers.
Dan Gregonis, a criminalist from the San Bernardino sheriff’s department, analyzed a drop of blood found on a wall near the room where the victims were killed. He said the blood came from an African American and linked it to Cooper. But on the stand at the trial, Gregonis admitted that after he received a sample of Cooper’s blood, he changed one test result to make it match Cooper’s.
With these and other incidents of misconduct in its record, the state fought long and hard to prevent DNA testing that could exonerate Cooper. The test results could draw attention to this shameful police record and further expose the inherently flawed nature of the death penalty. The state capitulated in December only because of growing public pressure and a new law granting testing to death row inmates.
But in May, the issue of police misconduct once again reared its ugly head. Records from the San Bernardino sheriff’s department, where some of the DNA evidence was stored, show that in 1999 the evidence was checked out overnight by Gregonis, the same criminalist who admitted to changing Cooper’s test results during his trial. He still works in the Scientific Identification Division (SID), where the evidence is kept.
Among other items, inventory records indicate that the evidence in his possession included the very blood drop that Gregonis tested for the trial and claimed was Cooper’s, along with an actual sample of Cooper’s blood. The evidence also contained a cigarette butt scheduled to undergo testing and a swab of Cooper’s saliva. The saliva could easily have been transferred onto the cigarette.
Interestingly, it was the prosecution, which has always opposed any testing, that suggested this cigarette be included in the items to be tested. Although we cannot know for sure what occurred, planting Cooper’s saliva would not be out of line with the previous actions of police investigators.
The legal team is outraged that Gregonis would be allowed any access to this evidence, which is of life and death importance for Cooper, considering his previous role in Cooper’s frame-up and the implications for his career if Cooper is exonerated.
“I cannot think of a legitimate reason for him to have had the evidence released to him,” stated Cooper’s lead attorney, Robert Amidon, in a letter to state officials. “As you might suspect, we are most suspicious of these events.” The defense has prepared a motion for an evidentiary hearing on this matter, which it intends to file soon.
The state has been hard pressed to come up with a legitimate explanation for Gregonis’s actions. In a May 21 letter to Amidon, San Bernardino Supervising Deputy District Attorney John Kochis stated, “He [Gregonis] informed me that the activity … was the result of my request in August of 1999 to determine if certain items were still in possession of the sheriff’s department.”
This explanation is questionable, considering that the existence and location of all evidence in possession of the sheriff’s department is recorded in the written inventory. Furthermore, the claim that Gregonis simply wanted to see what was there does not explain the fact that he kept the materials for over 24 hours.
Gregonis himself hasn’t offered any explanation for his actions, except through Kochis. On May 31 he told journalist Leslie Kean that he had been “ordered not say anything about that” by his superiors. Melody Morino, the SID officer who signed the evidence back in when Gregonis returned it, also refused to respond to questions from Kean.
Cooper believes that it is likely that tampering occurred, considering the lengths to which the state has already gone to seek his execution. “These people are intent on murdering me,” he told me during a recent visit to San Quentin. “To them, the end justifies the means.”
Cooper said he wasn’t surprised by the news that tampering may have occurred. “This kind of thing happens all the time in this so-called criminal justice system,” he explained.
In late June, Cooper’s attorneys discovered another possible incident of tampering when they went to the San Bernardino sheriff’s department to retrieve the DNA evidence for testing. To their surprise, it had already been removed from storage before their arrival.
Defense attorney William McGuigan notes, “When we went to get it a guy from the original investigation of Mr. Cooper’s case had collected all of the evidence and put it into a little paper bag. It certainly was an amazing performance.”
This was a flagrant violation of an agreement reached between the defense and the state of California in June. “We had structured the agreement very carefully to try to avoid anything like this from happening,” McGuigan stated. The agreement specified detailed procedures for removing, photographing, and packaging the evidence with both parties present. This violation, by someone with past connections to the prosecution, raises serious questions about what other misconduct may have occurred.
The evidence was shipped to the Department of Justice DNA Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., where the tests will be performed over the next two to three months. Many pieces of evidence will undergo testing, but it only takes one with Cooper’s DNA planted on it to send him to his death. Dr. Edward Blake, head of the testing team, will be scrutinizing the evidence for signs of tampering.
The many corrupt practices employed by the state to execute Cooper should serve as a vivid reminder of whose interests this “justice system” really serves. If the state is given the power to kill in this racist, class society, it will always mean injustice for the poor and exploited.
“Situations like the one I’m in are the reasons why we can’t have the death penalty,” says Cooper. “They show that you can’t trust the politicians, prosecutors, and the state to be honest.” Justice For Kevin Cooper! Abolish The Death Penalty!