New York Times Columnist Says Kevin Cooper May Have Been Framed, Urges DNA Testing That Could Prove His Innocence

Citing extensive evidence that California death-row prisoner Kevin Cooper (pictured) may have been framed, New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof has urged Governor Jerry Brown to permit advanced DNA testing of evidence that could potentially prove Cooper’s innocence. In a column electronically posted by the Times on May 17, 2018 and scheduled to appear in the paper’s May 20 Sunday print edition, Kristof joins a former FBI agent, the American Bar Association, and Judge William A. Fletcher of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in calling for closer review of the case. In his column, Kristof calls Cooper’s case “a failure at every level,” and says that he believes Cooper was framed by the San Bernardino‘s sheriff’s office, which had a history of planting and mishandling evidence. Cooper, who is Black, became the lead suspect in the 1983 killings of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica Ryen, and 11-year-old neighbor Chris Hughes, in spite of statements by 8-year-old Josh Ryen, the sole survivor of the attack, who twice told investigators that three White men had committed the murders. The four victims had been stabbed or slashed a combined 140 times with an ice pick, a hatchet, and at least one knife—an assault, Kristof said, that a single perpetrator, much less the 155-pound Cooper, was unlikely to have been able to carry out. Multiple witnesses saw three White men driving a vehicle fitting the description of the Ryens’ car—which had been stolen from their home—near the time of the murders. Other witnesses reported three White men in bloody clothes acting strangely at a nearby bar the night of the crime. When the car was found 30 miles away, Kristof writes, it “inconveniently had blood on the driver’s seat, the front passenger seat and the back seat—suggesting at least three killers.” Cooper came under suspicion because he had escaped from a local prison, where he had been incarcerated for robbery, and had hidden in an empty house near the Ryen family’s home. An initial police search of Cooper’s hideout turned up no evidence, but the day after they identified him as a suspect, police “found” the sheath of a hatchet and a bloody prison-uniform button in a room they claimed—falsely, Kristof says—to have not previously searched. The hatchet itself was found in a different direction, near the path the Ryens’ vehicle took the night of the murder, and the button later turned out to be a different color from the uniform Cooper had been wearing. Numerous leads pointed to an alternative suspect, a recently released convicted murderer whom Kristof identifies only as “Lee,” but police destroyed key evidence—a pair of bloody coveralls given to police by Lee’s girlfriend—before any testing took place. In 2004, Cooper was allowed to test a blood sample from a tan T-shirt that was found near the murder scene. The shirt was the same color, size, and brand as a T-shirt Lee’s girlfriend said she had recently bought for him and that he had been wearing earlier on the day of the murders. The testing found Cooper’s blood on the shirt, but his blood was contaminated with a chemical used in preserving blood samples, indicating that it had likely been planted on the shirt. The lab then tested the sample of Cooper’s blood held by the sheriff’s office and found multiple blood types, suggesting that Cooper’s sample had been topped off with someone else’s blood. Testing of other evidence, including the murder weapon and strands of hair found at the scene, could prove Cooper’s claim that he is innocent. Kristof said, “[I]f we execute a man in so flawed a case without even bothering to test the evidence rigorously, then a piece of our justice system dies along with Kevin Cooper.”

(Nicholas Kristof, Was Kevin Cooper Framed for Murder?, The New York Times, May 17, 2018.) See Innocence.

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