by Rebecca Doran – February, 2005
On the evening of Jan. 18, the gates of San Quentin State Prison in northern California once again became the scene of protest as officials prepared the death chamber for its next victim.
Over 400 anti-death-penalty activists rallied outside, braving hours of bitter cold temperatures in the shadow of this eerie, 153-year-old institution.
At midnight, 61-year-old Donald Beardslee, a man who suffered from severe brain damage, allowed guards to strap him to a gurney, where he lay silently for 16 minutes as five executioners clumsily poked and prodded both of his arms, searching for a vein in which to inject the lethal poison.
Donald Beardslee was California’s 11th execution victim since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1978, a statistic that nearly bore the name of San Quentin death-row inmate Kevin Cooper.
In December 2003, Cooper was placed under death warrant, with his execution by lethal injection scheduled for 12:01 a.m. on Feb, 10, 2004. However, a last-minute stay of execution was granted by the Ninth
Circuit Court of Appeals and was later upheld by the United States Supreme Court.
The stay of execution granted Cooper a new day in court. But the evidentiary hearings were assigned to the U.S. District courtroom of a hostile judge who had ruled against Cooper in a prior filing, and who has now rejected several significant issues raised by Cooper’s defense team.
Kevin Cooper was convicted of the June 4, 1983, slashing murders of three members of the Ryen family and a family friend in Chino Hills, Calif. Another
young victim, Josh Ryen survived the attack. Within four days of the crime, authorities had issued a warrant for the arrest of Cooper.
The prosecution claims that in less than two minutes, Cooper—somehow using three weapons at once—slashed to death the four victims and wounded the fifth in order to steal their car.
Despite the fact that the surviving victim reported that three assailants had chased the family around the house, and in complete disregard to a police report dated the day after the murders, which states that the victims’ car was seen occupied by “three young males,” officials pursued only Cooper.
The major piece of evidence that sent Cooper to death row was a bloody shoe print found on a bed sheet.
Jurors were told that a rare, prison-made shoe issued at the prison from which Cooper escaped had left the imprint. But Midge Carroll, the warden of the prison, testified on June 2, 2004, to the contrary. “There was no tennis shoes being made in Corrections at that point in time,” said Carroll. “…the shoes we had and that we issued were common, ordinary shoes that were commonly manufactured and sold in retail stores….”
With the evidence supporting the conviction beginning to weaken, prosecutors have focused on a beige t-shirt found on the side of the road near the murder scene that purportedly contains the blood of both Cooper and the victims. A small spot of blood on this t-shirt, reported by prosecutors to be Cooper’s, is now missing. The prosecution, unbeknownst to Cooper’s legal team, removed and destroyed this vital piece of evidence, making it impossible for Cooper’s team to conduct tests.
But in November the prosecution’s lab inadvertently assisted Cooper in proving the theory that police planted DNA on the shirt. The lab reported finding a high level of a preservative used in labs to store blood near a known DNA spot on the shirt, which supported the theory that the DNA came from a test tube rather than directly from Cooper’s body. However, the court allowed the prosecution to withdraw these findings without explanation.
A new twist in the story is the report of the existence of a blue t-shirt, apparently covered in blood, which was found on the side of the road near the crime scene by a woman named Laurel Epler. She contacted the sheriff’s department, and a Detective Fields, now deceased, picked up the shirt.
This evidence, which could help prove the multiple assailant theory, is now missing and claimed by the prosecution to have never existed. Although Epler is adamant that the t-shirt she found was blue, the prosecution has dismissed her as a confused old woman, who actually found the beige t-shirt. However, a
police log dated June 6, 1983, proves otherwise, stating clearly there was a blue t-shirt.
The growing numbers of protesters who take to the streets to end capital punishment and the emerging evidence of innocent people on death row are serving to plant seeds in the mind of the public that execution is unjust and barbaric. While Kevin Cooper remains in the front lines of the war, a growing
public is joining him and will see to it that the death penalty will become a nightmare of the past.