Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Court Upholds Death Sentence For Hacking Murder of Chino Family
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday upheld the death sentence for convicted murderer Kevin Cooper, whose 2004 execution was stayed just hours before he was to die by lethal injection in order to conduct tests on evidence found at the crime scene.
Ruling unanimously that the results of the tests “do not show Cooper’s innocence,” a three-judge panel of the court rejected Cooper’s challenge to his 1984 convictions for the murders of Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, and an 11-year old houseguest, whom Cooper hacked to death in the Ryen’s Chino home.
The Ninth Circuit had halted the execution in order to allow Cooper’s defense team to conduct mitochondrial DNA testing on blond hairs found in one of the victim’s hands, and to test for the presence of the preservative agent EDTA on a bloody t-shirt.
Cooper, who maintains his innocence, claimed that three other men committed the attacks. He alleged that testing the hairs would reveal the presence of someone other than himself or the victims at the crime scene.
He also contended that testing the shirt would show that officers of the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department had used the preservative agent on a sample of Cooper’s blood they had drawn in order to “plant” the blood on the t-shirt.
However, results of the tests showed that the hairs came from the victims, and that the level of the preservative agent on the bloody part of the shirt was lower than on a control sample taken from a non-bloodied part of the shirt.
Writing for the court, Judge Pamela Ann Rymer opined:
“As the district court, and all state courts have repeatedly found, evidence of Cooper’s guilt was overwhelming. The tests that he asked for to show his innocence ‘once and for all’ show nothing of the sort.”
Rymer rejected Cooper’s argument that U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff of the Southern District of California had abused her discretion by denying him discovery, failing to order forensic testing, limiting what he could show at evidentiary hearings, and denying a motion to expand the record on certain claims.
Not Entitled to Relief
Rymer also wrote that Cooper was not entitled to relief on his claims of actual innocence, that the state contaminated or tampered with key evidence, that the state failed to disclose material exculpatory evidence, and that the testimony of Josh Ryen, Douglas and Peggy Ryen’s then-eight-year-old son who survived the attack, was unreliable.
“[T]there is no basis to remand for examination and more testing of the evidence, or additional evidentiary hearings, as Cooper urges,” she said.
Rymer was joined in her opinion by Judge Ronald M. Gould.
In a separate concurring opinion, Judge M. Margaret McKeown pointed to “examples of evidentiary gaps, mishandling of evidence and suspicious circumstances,” to argue that significant evidence bearing on Cooper’s culpability had been lost, destroyed or left unpursued. Such information included blood-covered coveralls belonging to a potential suspect who was a convicted murderer, and a bloody t-shirt, discovered alongside the road near the crime scene, she said.
“The forensic evidence in this case is critical and yet was compromised,” she wrote. “These facts are all the more troubling because Cooper’s life is at stake.”
McKeown also pointed to “[c]ountless other alleged problems with the handling and disclosure of evidence and the integrity of the forensic testing and investigation” that she said undermined confidence in the evidence, including the fact that the managing criminologist in charge of the evidence used to establish Cooper’s guilt was a heroin addict who was fired for stealing drugs seized by the police.
Constrained by Statute
Despite these problems, however, McKeown said that she was constrained by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 to uphold Cooper’s conviction because he had failed to present any facts that could not have been previously discovered that would sufficiently establish by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable factfinder would have found him guilty.
Supervising Deputy Attorney General Ronald S. Matthias applauded the decision, calling the evidence “overwhelming.”
“Mr. Cooper has been afforded every imaginable opportunity to prove his innocence,” he said.
However Cooper’s lawyer, Norman C. Hile, said the testing was done improperly.
“At oral argument, the judges asked us whether or not the testing that was done was conclusive and we said no,” he said. “It needed to be redone.”
Cooper, who is on Death Row at San Quentin Prison, was the state’s first death row inmate to ask for DNA testing under a law giving convicted felons the right to request such testing to support claims of innocence. The tests were not available during Cooper’s 1984 trial.
The murders took place on June 5, 1983 in an affluent area of San Bernardino County days after Cooper escaped from the California Institute for Men in Chino and spent two days hiding in a vacant house next door.
Court documents indicate a bloodstained button found in the vacant house likely came from a prison-issue jacket, and said blood was found in the shower and sink at the vacant home. Hair that likely came from the Douglas Ryen and his daughter was also found in the home.
The case is controversial, as Cooper’s defenders claim he could not have committed the murders.
In 2001, the television program “48 Hours” aired a segment in which Peggy Ryen’s mother expressed doubt about Cooper’s ability to commit the murders. She pointed out that Douglas Ryen stood 6-foot, 2-inches and was an ex-Marine. She also pointed out that when he escaped, Cooper was serving time for burglary, and that nothing from the Ryen home was taken, except their station wagon.
But San Bernardino Chief Deputy District Attorney John Kochis, who was one of the original prosecutors on the Cooper case, painted a different picture in an interview with the MetNews in 2002.
Kochis said that when Cooper was first arrested in California on the burglary offense, he had escaped from the Pennsylvania prison system, and was wanted in that state for assaulting a young woman who Kochis said Cooper kidnapped, raped, stabbed and left for dead.
He said that Pennsylvania authorities had “elected not to return him” to that state for prosecution because Cooper received a death sentence in California.
The case is Cooper v. Brown, No. 05-99004.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company