The framing of Kevin Cooper

February 14, 2013

Dan Sharber reviews a new book that reveals how Kevin Cooper ended up on death row for a crime he didn't commit.

KEVIN COOPER is an innocent man on death row in California. If you've been around the movement to end the death penalty, you've likely heard his name. Now, thanks to the spellbinding new book Scapegoat by J. Patrick O'Connor, many, many more people will hopefully know his story, too.

This book is fantastic for a few different reasons. The first is that O'Connor is simply a talented writer. He uses the facts of the story to reconstruct it in such a way as to build a tension-filled legal thriller in the vein of John Grisham.

But unlike a Grisham novel or other true crime books, O'Connor doesn't just relay the story--he also spends a lot of time critiquing events and pointing out where things went wrong. This elevates the book above the level of a garden-variety true crime story and situates it firmly in the realm of political critique of the criminal justice system.

O'Connor's strength is his unwillingness to simply let the facts of the mishandling of Cooper's case speak for themselves. Instead, he hammers home the police misconduct, the prosecutorial shenanigans and Cooper's own defense attorney's screw-ups.

Protesters marching to stop the execution of Kevin Cooper in 2004
Protesters marching to stop the execution of Kevin Cooper in 2004 (Josh On | ISO)

Mainly, this is a simple story of racist scapegoating at its worst.

ON THE morning of June 5, 1983, Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica and Christopher Hughes were found dead in the Ryens' home. They had been chopped with a hatchet, sliced with a knife and stabbed with an ice pick. Josh Ryen, the 8-year-old son of Douglas and Peggy, had survived, though his throat had been cut.

It's important to note right away two things about this uncontested account. First, one person couldn't possibly have wielded that many weapons and subdued that many people. It's not humanly possible. And secondly, the only living witness, Josh Ryen, initially said that Cooper wasn't the killer and even told a social worker in the emergency room that the murders were committed by three or four white men.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department deputies who responded to the call decided almost immediately that Kevin Cooper was the likely killer because he had admitted that he'd hidden out in the vacant Lease house next door to the crime scene for two days (leaving on June 4). Cooper was also a convenient scapegoat since he was a Black man in predominately white San Bernardino.

The criminal justice system, and specifically the application of the death penalty, is full of racial bias. This bias extends not only to the race of the defendants singled out for death sentences but also to the race of the victim.

African Americans are 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 42 percent of prisoners on death row. In Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Maryland, and in the U.S. military and federal system, more than 60 percent of those on death row are Black. Virginia, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Ohio all have death rows in which more than 50 percent are African American. Although Blacks constitute approximately 50 percent of murder victims each year, 80 percent of the victims in death penalty cases were white, and only 14 percent were Black.

So the cards were stacked against Cooper before his name was even known. Likewise, the misconduct in this case also began even before Cooper was pegged as the perpetrator.

In a shocking example of prosecutorial overreach, District Attorney Dennis Kottmeier had the crime scene torn down after only a couple of days of investigation. This prevented any experts from reconstructing or re-enacting what happened that night in the Ryen's home. Further, even the little bit of forensic work that was done was totally botched and contaminated at every stage of the process.

O'Connor does an especially good job of pointing out the shocking level of incompetence of both the police force and the district attorney's office, even prior to the racist scapegoating that occurs once they discover Cooper was in the area. That's when things really heat up, as evidence is pretty conclusively planted in the house that Cooper was hiding in.

A blood-stained khaki green button identical to the buttons on field jackets issued at the state prison from which Cooper had escaped was found on the rug at the Lease house, a hatchet covered with dried blood and human hair that was found near the Ryens' home was reportedly missing from the Lease house, and the sheath for the hatchet was found in the bedroom where Cooper had stayed.

The button and the sheath--which appeared a day after the house had been searched and no such evidence had been found--were clearly planted in the Lease house. In addition, it was established at trial that the prison jacket Cooper was wearing was tan, not green. It was never established that the sheath matched the hatchet that was used in the crime.

THE TRAGEDY, though, isn't simply that Kevin Cooper could be executed for a crime he didn't commit but also that the Ryen family murders haven't been solved and the perpetrators are still at large. The local police had access to evidence and multiple accounts from witnesses at various times pointing to a group of three to four white men who were most likely the killers, but because this didn't conform to their hardened view that Cooper was the murder, they disregarded all of it.

What's more, the police even went so far as to destroy evidence. While destroying exculpating evidence by crooked cops is probably not all that uncommon, the disregard they show for finding the real killer is shocking. Shortly after the murders, a woman came forward saying she thought her (white) boyfriend was involved, because he'd left a pair of bloody overalls at her house.

She had to try many times to merely get the police interested enough to come and pick up the overalls. However instead of using this new lead to expand the search away from Cooper, the police destroyed the overalls--what was likely the largest single piece of exculpatory evidence in their possession. This witness also claimed that a hatchet was missing from her garage.

In a recent interview with Prison Radio, O'Connor pointed out, "While Cooper's trial was in progress, an inmate in a California prison told prison authorities and a San Bernardino County Sheriff's detective that his cellmate had confessed to the Chino Hills murders, stating it was an Aryan Brotherhood hit but the three killers had gone to the wrong house."

At this point, the case just gets totally absurd. The defense attorney, David Negus, clearly didn't know what he was doing and made mistake after mistake both procedurally and argumentatively. Even with a large amount of tainted evidence and clear misconduct on the part of the police and the DA's office, Negus still didn't put together a coherent defense. Cooper was unsurprisingly convicted and sentenced to death row.

But the misconduct isn't over. Clearly Cooper had some solid grounds for appeals, but those too were thwarted at every turn--from the incompetent police lab techs willfully destroying evidence (only to find it again when it served their case) to the appellate judge maliciously denying Cooper all sorts of legal maneuvers for no other reason than spite.

I'm an anti-death penalty activist, and I was even shocked at the level of unfairness, corruption and general incompetence that riddled this case.

There is so much more to discuss on this case that I don't have the space to get into here. Suffice it to say, this book is well worth reading. It gives an inside view of not just how one man was railroaded and could be murdered by the state for a crime he didn't commit, but it's also a glimpse into the very real way that this racist scapegoating happened and continues to happen throughout the criminal "justice" system.

Get mad and then get involved.

For more information on Kevin's case, visit the Free Kevin Cooper website.

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