State bungles ‘evidence’ in Kevin Cooper case

by Rebecca Doran

The controversial case of San Quentin Death Row inmate Kevin Cooper continues in U.S. District Court in San Diego. However, for those interested in learning details of the hearings, the mainstream media has proven to be a great disservice.

Cooper has spent nearly 20 years on Death Row. He was convicted in 1985 of the 1983 Chino Hills, Calif., murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen; their 11-year-old daughter, Jessica; and 10-year-old houseguest Christopher Hughes.

On Feb. 9, 2004, hours before he was scheduled to be put to death, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals granted Cooper a last-minute stay of execution. This intervention by the court, which denied the state of California its 11th killing since 1978, was granted so that crucial pieces of evidence could be examined. With the stay, Cooper’s case was moved back to District Court in San Diego.

One of the most critical pieces of evidence in question is a bloodstained beige t-shirt, which prosecutors claim ties Cooper through DNA to the murder. The t-shirt was found about a half-mile from the murder scene and allegedly contains DNA of both Cooper and Doug Ryen.

However, testing performed on the shirt at the time of the criminal trial found no blood consistent with Kevin Cooper’s. It was only post-trial, at Cooper’s insistence, that DNA testing was performed. When the results came back in favor of the prosecution, even more questions were raised in this case—which is riddled with inconsistencies.

After DNA tests on the t-shirt seemingly tied Cooper to the murders, Cooper’s defense team began requesting that further tests be conducted, which could prove his blood was planted by police.

The police took a sample of Cooper’s blood from him when he was arrested and stored it in a test tube containing a preservative called EDTA. Cooper’s defense team requested EDTA preservative testing in order to show whether or not the evidence came from the blood drawn by police.

At the objection of the state, U.S District Court Judge Marilyn Huff reluctantly ordered this test be conducted.

On Aug. 13, the prosecution told the court that part of the bloodstain remained from the DNA testing. But when the lab unsealed the evidence, the remains of the stain that allegedly tied Cooper to the murder were gone. They had been used up in secret presumptive tests done by the prosecution in 2003.

In October the prosecution finally declared that their lab had admitted to providing the court with inaccurate information regarding the existence of the stain. But they did not explain why presumptive testing was done.

In response, Judge Huff ordered that a new stain be tested for EDTA. But this new stain has never even been tested to match Cooper’s DNA. Samples of this evidence were sent to two laboratories: one that represented the defense, and another the prosecution. The results of this testing, although seriously downplayed by the mainstream media, are very important.

Although Cooper’s lab reported an elevated level of EDTA in one critical area, the prosecution’s lab reported an extremely elevated concentration of EDTA in the area that had previously been determined to contain Cooper’s and Ryan’s blood.

Thus, the prosecution’s own results supported Cooper’s tampering theory! Immediately, the prosecution began a public campaign of damage control, which led to their scientist, Dr. Suizdak, withdrawing his results and stating that the samples were contaminated. Although Dr. Suizdak has not explained how up to 10 important vials were accidentally contaminated with EDTA in his lab, it took him more than one month from the time of testing to report it to the court.

Cooper’s defense has offered the court a plethora of new evidence and witness testimony that point in the direction of Cooper’s innocence. However, the mainstream press, who many believe helped convict Cooper, has chosen to ignore it. (See page 15 of this month’s Socialist Action for a letter written by Cooper in regard to the state’s mishandling of evidence.)

The state of California and the mainstream press have gone to great lengths to bolster what was a very weak conviction in Kevin Cooper’s case. At a time when the state’s intention to build a new $220 million Death Row at San Quentin is being challenged by a growing population of abolitionists, the exoneration of Kevin Cooper could cripple the state’s system of execution. We must continue to organize to free Kevin Cooper and put an end to the killing of our working-class sisters and brothers!

*This article first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Socialist Action newspaper.

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