Death row inmate Kevin Cooper's fight to avoid execution for killing four people in Chino Hills in 1983 was dealt a major setback when new DNA tests determined that hairs found on the victims probably belonged to them, and not to another suspect.
The DNA tests, which were conducted by Dr. Terry Melton, a Pennsylvania-based expert recommended by Cooper's defense attorneys, are expected to be presented at an appeals hearing today in U.S. District Court in San Diego.
Melton's test results were sent Wednesday to the California attorney general, Cooper's attorneys and U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff, sources said.
David Alexander, Cooper's attorney, said he had reviewed Melton's report and said the findings did not appear to support a defense theory that someone else might have committed the murders.
"It is my understanding she didn't find a non-victim hair," he said.
Alexander previously had argued that the finding of an unidentified hair would be sufficient reason for the court to require DNA samples from two other men who might have been involved in the murders, including a man implicated by his former girlfriend.
Holly Wilkens, the deputy attorney general handling Cooper's case, declined to comment about Melton's report, pending its presentation to the court today.
Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 11-year-old daughter, Jessica, and a 10-year-old house guest, Christopher Hughes, were killed on the night of June 4, 1983, two days after Cooper had escaped from Chino state prison and hid in a small house near the Ryen home.
Cooper was convicted of the Ryen/Hughes murders in 1985 and was due to be executed by lethal injection shortly after midnight Feb. 10.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed his execution on Feb. 9 and called for Huff to order the tests of crime scene hairs, noting, "Jessica [Ryen] was found clutching a substantial amount of fairly long blond or light brown hair in her hand."
Melton tested 10 hairs found on Jessica Ryen's hands, two on Doug Ryen's hands and one on Hughes' arm.
Melton could not rule out that the donors of the 13 hairs were the victims, sources close to the case said.
The 9th Circuit Court additionally has called for Huff to order testing for the possible presence of a blood preservative known as EDTA on a T-shirt found discarded off a Chino Hills road that contained the blood of Cooper and Doug and Peggy Ryen.
Huff already has denied the defense's recommendation of one EDTA expert, and has expressed skepticism about the scientific value of an EDTA test.
Huff also has called several hearings but has yet to rule whether San Bernardino County prosecutors committed a federal violation by not sharing investigative information with Cooper's defense attorneys.