Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Is California preparing to execute an innocent man?

A 57-year-old man who has been on California's death row for 30 years is set to be the next prisoner executed by the state, even though five judges say he is innocent.

Kevin Cooper was sentenced to death in 1985 for the brutal slaying of  Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica, and 10-year-old Chris Hughes, who was staying at their house in the Los Angeles suburb of Chino Hills.

Their eight-year-old son Josh was the only survivor, even though he had his throat slit, and his account of that night would be the key to the prosecution's case.

In November, a moratorium on executions in The Golden State was lifted, paving the way for Cooper's date with the gurney at San Quentin prison.

However he says he is planning to file a last-ditch motion to Gov. Jerry Brown to keep an 'open mind' about evidence in the case.  He has run out of other options so, if Brown doesn't intervene, he will be given the lethal injection.

In an interview with NBC from behind bars, he said: 'I am the only person in the history of the state to have five federal circuit judges say that 'the state of California may be about to execute an innocent man.

'I'm not asking America as a whole, or any one person in particular, to believe me. Forget what I say. I'm asking people to believe those [judges].

The young Ryen who survived the attack initially said that three white or Latino men murdered his parents. That account, combined with physical evidence suggested multiple killers and prompted police to release a criminal bulletin seeking three suspects who were 'white or Mexican males.'

On the night of the murders, two witnesses saw three white men driving a station wagon down the dead-end road away from the house. The family's station wagon was stolen that night.

Then a local woman, Diana Roper, told police she thought her ex-husband was involved in the 'Chino Murders,' according to records from the sheriff department.

She said a hatchet owned by convicted murderer and white supremacist Lee Furrow was missing. She also claims he left pants covered with blood at her home after the murder.

According to NBC she gave police the pants but she didn't test them. Later the Ninth Circuit would rule that action by police was illegal.

But the cops focused on Cooper, primarily because he had escaped from prison and was staying at a house nearby.

Beginning with circumstantial evidence, they then picked up on physical evidence - such as blood and a footprint at the scene of the crime. Prosecutors said it was from a prison-issue shoe, and therefore could have only been from Cooper.

However the warden of the prison from where he escaped said this wasn't true - a rebuttal the prosecution hid from the jury.

They also highlighted his long criminal record.

At trial, Ryen also changed his testimony to see that it was Cooper who murdered his family and tried to kill him. He changed his mind despite the fact that when he saw a picture of Cooper on TV, he said: 'That’s not the man who did it.'

After a week of deliberating, the jury found Cooper guilty and he was sentenced to death.

Some people questioned the ruling, but others said it was clear-cut.  Dennis Kottmeier, the district attorney who prosecuted Cooper, maintained it was 'the strongest evidentiary case' he 'had ever seen.'

Bill Hughes, the father of victim Chris Hughes, said the 2004 ruling was 'unfathomable.'

In 2004, he was three hours away from being put to death after the then Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger denied his request for clemency.

He was saved by the Ninth Circuit Court, who said some of the evidence against him was flawed and illegal. They also said Cooper was 'almost certainly' not wearing shoes from the crime scene.

'You watch the clock as your life goes off, minute by minute,' Cooper told NBC News. 'I was ten feet away from being murdered.'

It would also turn out that the blood found at the scene did not belong to Cooper. Tests found it contained DNA from two people - a discovery the judge said was 'startling'.

It was enough to raise questions, however prosecutors maintained that cigarette butts found linked him to the crime.

On November 30, 2009, the United States Supreme Court upheld the Ninth Circuit Court's denial of his appeal - but the judges were bitterly divided.

In an unprecedented 103-page dissent signed by five of judges, they warned: 'The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.'

His case was also highlighted in July 2015 during an episode of CNN's Death Row Stories, which suggested that there was evidence which could exonerate Cooper.

On October 28, 2015, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found Cooper's basic rights had been violated throughout the trial. They also concluded that he had been given ineffective counsel at trial.

A statement on a website dedicated to Cooper's case reads: 'Mr. Cooper was prosecuted, tried and convicted 30 years ago in an atmosphere of racial hatred.

'When the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Dept. identified their suspect in the Ryen/Hughes murders as an African-American man, it set off a wave of racial hatred that culminated in acts such as a monkey being hanged in effigy outside the courthouse with a sign saying “Kill the N****r.”

'Mr. Cooper has never received a fair hearing on his claims of innocence. Commenting on post-conviction legal proceedings in Mr. Cooper’s case, five federal appellate judges said: “There is no way to say this politely. The district court failed to provide Cooper a fair hearing. ... The district court impeded and obstructed Cooper’s attorneys at every turn".

'Lacking a motive to ascribe to Mr. Cooper for the crimes, the prosecution claimed that Mr. Cooper, who had earlier walked away from custody at a minimum security prison, stole the Ryens’ car to escape to Mexico.

'But the Ryens had left the keys in both their cars (which were parked in the driveway), so there was no need to kill them to steal their car.

'The prosecution also claimed that Mr. Cooper needed money, but money and credit cards were found untouched and in plain sight at the murder scene.'

Original report here

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