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U.S. appeals panel upholds conviction in ‘83 murders

Times Staff Writer

Calling the evidence of his guilt “overwhelming,” a federal appeals court in San Francisco on Tuesday upheld the death sentence of Kevin Cooper, who was convicted of a rampage 25 years ago that left a Chino Hills couple and two children dead.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected arguments from Cooper’s appellate lawyers that he was framed and that prosecutors withheld evidence that could have cleared him.

The ruling upheld a decision by U.S. District Judge Marilyn L. Huff in San Diego, who considered new blood and hair evidence tests ordered in the case after the 9th Circuit in 2004 granted a last-minute stay of execution.

Huff wrote that she was convinced that Cooper “is the one responsible for these brutal murders,” noting post-conviction DNA testing that linked Cooper to a drop of blood in the hallway outside the bedroom of two of the murder victims, to saliva from cigarette butts found in the hallway and to blood smears on a T-shirt found outside a bar near the murder scene.

The 9th Circuit, in a 3-0 ruling written by Judge Pamela A. Rymer, agreed. “As the district court, and all state courts, have repeatedly found, evidence of Cooper’s guilt was overwhelming,” the decision said.

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Judges Ronald M. Gould and M. Margaret McKeown concurred in the decision. But McKeown, in a separate, concurring opinion, expressed her dismay that the court, because of limits on habeas petitions imposed by Congress in 1996, could not examine the “integrity of the evidence”.

“Significant evidence bearing on Cooper’s culpability has been lost, destroyed or left un-pursued, including, for example, blood-covered overalls belonging to a potential suspect who was a convicted murderer, and a bloody T-shirt, discovered alongside the road near the crime scene,” McKeown wrote. McKeown noted that the criminalist in charge of the evidence was a heroin addict who was fired for stealing drugs seized by police.

The judge said she was “troubled that we cannot, in Kevin Cooper’s words, resolve the question of his guilt ‘once and for all.’ ”

According to evidence presented at trial, Cooper had faked a medical condition in 1983 to escape from the Chino state prison, where he was serving a sentence for burglary. He broke into the home of Douglas and Peggy Ryen and used a hatchet, knife and ice pick to kill the couple, their daughter Jessica, 11, and houseguest Christopher Hughes, also 11.

Prosecutors also presented evidence that Cooper slashed the throat of the Ryens’ 8-year-old son, Joshua, who lay next to his mother’s body for 11 hours before he was found. He survived and testified against Cooper.

Cooper, now 50, admits that after he escaped from prison he hid in a house near the Ryens’ residence. But he has maintained that he hitchhiked out of the area and was not involved in the murders. He was arrested seven weeks after the killings.

The Chino Hills killings received so much publicity in San Bernardino County that Cooper’s trial was moved to San Diego County. In 1985, he was convicted of the murders and sentenced to death. Tuesday’s ruling was the latest of many appellate decisions in the case.

Sacramento attorney Norman C. Hile said he was disappointed and would seek another hearing before a larger panel of judges. He had argued that Huff erred in not ordering further testing and in declining to consider evidence about “three suspicious men,” one wearing bloody clothes, who reportedly were seen shortly after the murders in a bar not far from the crime scene.

But Ronald S. Mathias, California’s senior assistant attorney general in charge of death penalty appeals, said the court made the right decision.

Mathias said he was particularly pleased with “the court’s acknowledgment that” evidence of Cooper’s guilt “was ‘overwhelming.’ I think that addresses any concern that technicalities” of the 1996 law “affected the outcome of this case.”

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henry.weinstein@latimes.com


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