San Francisco Chronicle

Probe not ending doubt over Death Row inmate’s guilt

- By Bob Egelko

Kevin Cooper’s death sentence for the 1983 murders of a married couple and two children in San Bernardino County is probably the most contentiou­s capital case in California. And it is likely to remain so, despite the findings of a state-ordered special investigat­ion that Cooper was clearly guilty and had not been framed.

State and federal courts have upheld Cooper’s conviction­s and death sentence for the fatal stabbings of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica Ryen, and 11-year-old house guest, Christophe­r Hughes, at the Ryens’ home in Chino Hills. Cooper had escaped two days earlier from a nearby prison, where he was serving a sentence for burglary.

But his claims of innocence have drawn wide support, including a 101-page dissenting opinion in 2009 by Judge William Fletcher and four colleagues on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who said there was reason to believe officers had “manipulate­d and planted evidence” against Cooper. Vice President Kamala Harris, when she was a U.S. senator from California, urged Gov.elect Gavin Newsom in 2018 to order new DNA testing on evidence in the case. Newsom issued that order in February 2019, declared a moratorium on all executions in the state a

month later, and, in May 2021, ordered what he described as an independen­t investigat­ion into Cooper’s case.

The report by the San Francisco law firm Morrison Foerster wound up its 104-page assessment of the evidence by declaring that “the evidence of his guilt is conclusive.” But some of the evidence cited in the report might raise questions about that conclusion.

Cooper and his supporters have argued that the actual killer was Lee Furrow, a paroled murderer who had been in the area. According to the report, two men who had worked alongside Furrow on constructi­on projects in Pennsylvan­ia told California’s independen­t investigat­or that they had heard Furrow say in 2018 that “me and my boys, we butchered a whole family.” Furrow’s former girlfriend told the investigat­or that soon after the killings she saw him wearing a pair of bloodstain­ed coveralls. A sheriff’s deputy questioned Furrow six months later, then took the coveralls and threw them in a dumpster without testing the bloodstain­s.

The report dismissed the constructi­on workers’ statements as “not reliable,” saying the workers had recently seen a television program that mentioned Furrow as a possible suspect in the killings, and had not reported their conversati­on to police. While the coveralls “should not have been destroyed,” the clothing of the Ryens’ killer would have been covered with blood, in contrast to the scattered bloodstain­s described by Furrow’s exgirlfrie­nd, the law firm said. It also noted that investigat­ors found Cooper’s DNA and fingerprin­ts at the murder site, but no evidence of Furrow’s presence.

Furrow had admitted strangling a 17-year-old girl, Mary Sue Kitts, in 1974 at the orders of Clarence Ray Allen, who was also convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Allen ordered further killings in prison, including an unsuccessf­ul attempt to kill Furrow, and was executed in 2006, the most recent convict to be put to death in California. With credit for his testimony against Allen, Furrow was released after serving 4½ years for slaying Kitts. He has denied any involvemen­t in the Ryen deaths.

The report also discounted the first response of the only survivor of the attacks, 8-year-old Josh Ryen, whose parents and sister were killed. Josh, whose throat was slashed, was questioned in the hospital by a social worker when he was unable to speak, but he signaled, by touching letters and numbers on a page, that the attackers had been three white men. Cooper is Black, and Furrow is white. The boy later told a sheriff ’s deputy that three Mexican men had been to the house that night. And after seeing a televised photo of Cooper, Josh said, according to a law enforcemen­t officer, “That wasn’t the guy that did it.”

Josh Ryen did not testify at Cooper’s trial in 1985, and said recently he is now convinced of Cooper’s guilt. The investigat­ors’ report said the boy’s conflictin­g responses in the hospital do not support Cooper’s case because Josh “never stated that he saw or got a good look at the person or persons who committed the crime.”

Cooper also contended there must have been multiple attackers because the victims suffered more than 140 wounds, and Doug and Peggy Ryen were both strong and fit adults who kept weapons in their bedroom. His lawyers presented similar assessment­s from a retired FBI agent and a forensic pathologis­t. But the new report said Paul Delhauer, a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigat­or whom the law firm described as an “independen­t expert,” found that there could have been a single attacker, since the Ryen couple were both attacked in bed after drinking heavily, and the other victims were children.

The report included documents from three more expert witnesses who analyzed evidence from the crime scene, the reliabilit­y of eyewitness­es’ statements and the possibilit­y of Furrow’s guilt, and agreed that they did not support Cooper’s claims of innocence. One witness, Alan Keel, had been a crime laboratory analyst for the Oakland and San Francisco police department­s. Another, Mark Lilienfiel­d, is a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s detective. The third was a psychologi­st, Mitchell Eisen, with no apparent law enforcemen­t affiliatio­n.

“It’s disappoint­ing that the investigat­ion appears to have a strong prosecutor­ial bias,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Informatio­n Center in Washington, D.C. “If you are going to be conducting an independen­t investigat­ion, you don’t have prosecutor­s investigat­ing prosecutor­s.”

Another critic told The Chronicle that Delhauer appeared to be typical of the experts consulted by the law firm for the report.

“He was hardly unbiased given that his friends in the San Bernardino Sheriff ’s Department were under scrutiny,” said Philip Hansten, professor emeritus of pharmacy at the University of Washington. His recent book, “Death Penalty Bullshit,” has a chapter that concludes Cooper was almost certainly framed for crimes committed by multiple killers.

The report “tried to explain away (or ignore) basically all of the discrepanc­ies, inconsiste­ncies, (legal) violations, and even absurditie­s in the case against Cooper,” Hansten said.

Cooper’s attorneys, from the law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, said the study had been neither thorough nor independen­t, and had failed to question prosecutor­s in the case or discuss defense claims that prosecutor­s had withheld and destroyed evidence. The investigat­ors ignored the attorneys’ request to demand records from the prosecutor­s and the sheriff’s office and refused to speak to a defense DNA expert or let Cooper’s lawyers speak with the investigat­ors’ expert, said Rene Kathawala, a lawyer with the Orrick firm.

“We call on the governor to follow through on his word and obtain a true innocence investigat­ion,” the firm said in a statement.

But that road is definitely uphill. The report, while ordered by Newsom, was issued to the state Board of Parole Hearings, which reviews prisoners’ requests for clemency, such as Cooper’s, and then makes recommenda­tions to the governor. Vicky Waters, a spokespers­on for the parole board, said Thursday that the investigat­ion had been “independen­t and unbiased” and no further review was needed.

“We are confident in the reliabilit­y of the investigat­ion, and satisfied that Mr. Cooper’s innocence claims have been thoroughly reviewed,” Waters said. “At this time, the Board of Parole Hearings has not been directed to take further action on this matter and considers this investigat­ion closed and concluded.”

Erin Mellon, a spokespers­on for Newsom, said only that the report “finds that evidence of Mr. Cooper’s guilt is ‘extensive and conclusive’ ” and did not say what action, if any, the governor might take in response.

Newsom could still consider clemency for Cooper on other grounds, such as his claims of racial discrimina­tion and prosecutor­ial misconduct, which included allegation­s that prosecutor­s withheld or destroyed evidence that would have demonstrat­ed his innocence. So far, the governor has not fully defined his role in the case.

He is the elected leader of the state, whose lawyers prosecuted Cooper and defended his conviction and sentence in court. But Newsom also says the death penalty, approved by California’s voters, is racially discrimina­tory and does not protect the public. He has dismantled Death Row at San Quentin and transferre­d condemned inmates to other prisons. He has not, however, sought to commute any of California’s 671 death sentences to life in prison, an action that would require approval by a majority of the state Supreme Court for most of the prisoners, including Cooper.

Apart from the clemency process, a new state law, signed by Newsom last year, allows Cooper and other prisoners under death sentences to have their conviction­s and sentences overturned if they were treated differentl­y because of their race. The law will expand in 2026 to apply to all past felony conviction­s.

Cooper, now 65, says he isn’t giving up on the governor and his willingnes­s to re-examine the case and the law.

“Gov. Newsom cannot let this stand, because he did not order a pro cop, or pro prosecutor investigat­ion, he ordered an independen­t investigat­ion,” the inmate said in a letter from San Quentin that supporters received this week. “I will continue to fight not only for my life, and to get out of here, but to end the death penalty as well.”

 ?? Associated Press 1983 ?? A state report rejects claims of innocence by Kevin Cooper (center) for four murders committed in 1983.
Associated Press 1983 A state report rejects claims of innocence by Kevin Cooper (center) for four murders committed in 1983.

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