Death Row inmate Kevin Cooper fights for his innocence

By DON HARMON

Since 1983, African American Kevin Cooper has been incarcerated on Death Row at California’s San Quentin State Prison. Wrongfully convicted during a nationally-covered racist frame-up trial in San Bernardino County, Cooper came within hours of being executed in 2004. But thanks to a broad movement demanding justice and freedom and ever-mounting evidence of innocence, a ruling by the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals stayed his execution, literally at the mid0night hour. Cooper has for decades become a leading social justice fighter and an opponent of the death penalty.  

Stretching over decades, Cooper’s case has been repeatedly exposed as rife with overt corruption, gross incompetence and racial bias. As followers of American history will note, African Americans are often subjected to  the full weight of this nation’s racist and classist criminal injustice system. The details of Kevin Cooper’s case fully illustrate this ugly tradition; despite all evidence to the contrary, the “blame it on the Black guy” thesis has been fully operative.

Now, in January 2020, Cooper’s attorney, Norman C. Hile of the prestigious Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe global law firm, sent a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom requesting that the Governor’s office order a “complete innocence investigation.” Previously, Governor Newsom ordered a stay of all further executions in California and in so doing, granted a reprieve to Cooper.

Attorney Hile’s letter summarizes the key facts proving that Kevin Cooper is innocent of the brutal 1983 Ryen-Hughes murders in Chino Hills, California.  [For a detailed expose´ of the Cooper case see: Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper by J.  Patrick Cooper.]

The recent Governor Newsom-ordered DNA testing on a tan t-shirt and orange towel –  items found at the murder scene – according to the initial report, do not match Cooper’s DNA. None of the hairs from the victims’ hands, according to this report,  came from an African American.

Most egregiously, a vial of Kevin Cooper’s blood, taken in 1983, has been shown to be contaminated with other blood. And a second blood vial of Cooper’s blood is missing. These blood vials point to either mishandling of evidence or deliberate efforts to frame Cooper for the murders. For many years the prosecution denied DNA testing that certainly would have resulted in a new trial and proof of Cooper’s innocence.

Review of Kevin Cooper’s case

Shortly after the 1983 murders of the Ryen family and neighbor Christopher Hughes, three persons were seen driving away from the Ryen home in a car that looked like the Ryen station wagon. Josh Ryen, whose life was saved at the hospital, identified his attackers as three white or Mexican males. When Josh Ryen saw Cooper’s mug shot on the television news, he said that Cooper was not one of the killers.

The attorney’s letter states that there is now testimony from three persons to whom Eugene Leland Furrow confessed that he was responsible for the murders. Back in 1983, Diane Roper, then Furrow’s girlfriend, turned over to police coveralls covered in blood. Those bloody coveralls are now missing.

One of the key witnesses testified that Furrow confessed to participating in the murders and that Furrow was seen by this witness wearing a tan t-shirt that matched the one with Doug Ryen’s blood on it. Also, this witness asserted that Furrow arrived at the Furrow/Roper residence in a station wagon that matches the Ryen’s stolen vehicle.

There is further evidence of the corruption flooding over the Cooper case. One of the prosecution’s forensic experts, William Baird, was fired because he was found stealing heroin from various state evidence lockers. Similarly, San Bernardino County Sheriff Floyd Tidwell, also involved in the Cooper case, was convicted on felony charges of stealing hundreds of guns from evidence lockers over a period of years.

Quoting from the Hile letter: “First, according to a study published by the National Registry of Exonerations, a majority of exonerations over the past 30 years have come about not through DNA testing, as effective as that can be, but from innocence emerging through other, non-DNA factors. According to this study, there have been five times as many exonerations from non-DNA factors as from DNA testing. These non-DNA factors include, as here, (1) confessions from the actual perpetrators, (2) the discovery that “junk science” was used to obtain a wrongful conviction, and (3) that the prosecution offered perjured testimony from jailhouse snitches. Those cases also display rampant racial bias in prosecution, faulty eye-witness testimony, withholding and destroying exculpatory evidence, and ineffective assistance of defense counsel. Mr. Cooper has already shown that the prosecution presented false “snitch” testimony, relied on “junk science” and ran an investigation that was improperly driven by racism.

In addition, Mr. Cooper has shown that the prosecution presented perjured testimony and destroyed exonerating evidence, and that his defense counsel was profoundly ineffective.”

The attorney’s letter concludes that in light of this ongoing corruption, new evidence and racism, Governor Newsom should order a complete and thorough innocence investigation to expose this wrongdoing and prevent this from happening to anyone else. For further information on Kevin Cooper, see this 2018 article in Socialist Action.