Design a site like this with
Get started

Death Row inmate Kevin Cooper fights for his innocence


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 midnight 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.


source: Death Row inmate Kevin Cooper fights for his innocence

Spotlight: Kevin Cooper’s case exemplifies decades of systemic failures

Kim Kardashian West, @KimKardashian, tweeted this photo and wrote: “I had an emotional meeting with Kevin Cooper yesterday at San Quentin’s death row. I found him to be thoughtful and honest, and I believe he is innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted.”

by Sarah Lustbader

Kevin Cooper’s name has been in the papers in recent weeks, as it has been on and off for 35 years. This time, it was because Kim Kardashian visited him in prison, part of her advocacy for those she believes were wrongly convicted.

Cooper was sentenced to death for the hacking murders of Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old neighbor. The Ryens’ 8-year-old son, Josh, survived his throat being slashed.

A reality show star is among Cooper’s best hopes for exoneration, and the media is generally focusing not on the case, but on backlash against her. These are only the two most recent examples of how Cooper’s case exemplifies so much that is wrong with our system. Since his 1983 arrest, Cooper’s treatment has exposed one systemic failure after another.

Cooper describes his childhood as abusive and troubled. His first involvement with the system was at age 7, after he ran away from his adoptive family to escape beatings. He turned to shoplifting and marijuana use, ending up in juvenile detention.

In his mid-20s, Cooper was sentenced to four years for burglary, but he wasn’t sent to an ordinary prison. He was sent to the California Institution for Men, in Chino, which, despite the conformist name, was founded in 1941 as an experiment in prison reform. It was built to alleviate overcrowding, violence and oppression in California’s other prisons, which newspapers described as “powder kegs ready to explode.”

The man hired to imagine this new system was Kenyon J. Scudder, a veteran penologist who had ideas for how to improve the prison system he saw as archaic and inhumane. Under Scudder, the institution, nicknamed Chino, was rooted in the idea that “prisoners are people,” and it sought to treat those incarcerated with dignity.


Kevin Cooper

Chino’s first class of 34 prisoners included those with convictions for minor offenses along with those who were convicted for violent crimes. Chino didn’t use terms like “warden” or “guards.” Scudder was the “superintendent,” and his guards were “supervisors,” mostly college-educated people who had never before worked in prisons. This was to avoid any punitive mindsets.

Scudder de-emphasized security and weapons, and trained his staff in conflict resolution. Prisoners chose their own clothing and their own jobs. Their cells were not locked, and instead of a 25-foot wall with gun towers, as was suggested, Scudder built only a five-strand barbed-wire fence.

He encouraged loved ones to visit, permitting physical contact, and he refused to segregate on racial lines. Today, this kind of prison would be considered a quixotic dream.

“For a brief period of time, it seemed that other prisons around the world would follow Chino’s lead,” write Emily Nagisa Keehn and Dana Walters of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School. “In the early 1950s, prison experts at the International Penal and Penitentiary Congress agreed that open prisons should eventually replace traditional cell-based prisons for nearly all types of [prisoners].”

In 1955, a United Nations resolution echoed the sentiment. But Chino eventually morphed into a traditional maximum security prison. Several factors doomed Scudder’s vision, all part of the tough-on-crime movement, but one high-profile escape was particularly damaging to the model: In 1983, Kevin Cooper walked out of the prison a day after arriving, and was soon the lead suspect in four gruesome murders.

It makes no sense – morally, financially, or logically – to ignore the good of any given endeavor because one person abused it. But what happened in Chino is part of a pattern wherein politicians act cowardly and walk away from progressive and promising models, usually at the expense of the least enfranchised.

The system was not done exposing its worst in Cooper’s case. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an exhaustive and devastating column detailing the evidence indicating that Cooper was framed by law enforcement for the murders. “In 1983, four people were murdered in a home in Chino Hills, California,” he begins. “The sole survivor of the attack said three white intruders had committed the murders. Then a woman told the police that her boyfriend, a white convicted murderer, was probably involved, and she gave deputies his bloody coveralls. So here’s what sheriff’s deputies did: They threw away the bloody coveralls and arrested a young Black man named Kevin Cooper.”

As in so many cases, Cooper’s trial was, to put it mildly, racially charged. One man brought a noose around a stuffed gorilla to a hearing. According to Cooper’s current lawyer, “He didn’t have a half-decent defense.” The crime was high profile and law enforcement was under pressure to punish someone.

Kristof dispatches with the evidence against Cooper by exposing law enforcement negligence, such as when the district attorney shut down the on-scene investigation “for fear, he said, of gathering so much evidence that defense experts could spin complicated theories.” Kristof also exposes probable lies, like when a deputy suspected of planting evidence claimed not to have entered the room where the evidence was found, but his fingerprints were found there.

Various judges have concluded that Cooper was framed. Kristof notes that the bloody coveralls were not the only evidence pointing to a different culprit, but it was all ignored.

Cooper also faced politicians who cared more about saving face than saving the life of a possibly innocent person. Kamala Harris, as district attorney of California, refused to permit advanced DNA testing that could have exonerated Cooper. It was only after Kristof’s column was widely shared, and Harris was no longer in a position to help, that she reversed her position.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown waited until the very end of his term to finally order new DNA testing, but, as the Los Angeles Times reported, he “inexplicably stopped short of ordering all the testing needed.” Shortly after Gavin Newsom took office as governor, he ordered additional DNA testing. The results are pending.

Not everyone caught in the criminal legal system prompts backsliding on reform, and not everyone is hit with high-profile murder charges. Not everyone is framed. And very few have Kim Kardashian fighting for them.

But plenty of people have been railroaded because of their race, their class or their education. And plenty of people have been disbelieved because law enforcement says otherwise, regardless of how implausible the police story is. Plenty have faced arbitrary refusals of those in power to get to the truth. And a tremendous number have suffered because politicians rolled back reforms after isolated incidents of abuse. Cooper understands all this.

“I don’t have any confidence,” he told Kristof. “I don’t believe in the system.” Cooper believes that the criminal legal system is unfair to poor people and non-white people. “I’m frameable, because I’m an uneducated Black man in America,” he said. “Sometimes it’s race, and sometimes it’s class.” He is writing a memoir. “That’s my motivating factor to get out of here, to tell my story and tell the truth about this rotten-a** system,” he said.