Doubts remain -- but legal recourse does not -- in Kevin Cooper case

On a Sunday morning in June 1983, Bill Hughes arrived at a hilltop home in Chino Hills, concerned that his young son hadn't returned home in time for church after a sleepover.

Hughes had called from his own home nearby but had gotten no answer. No one stirred when he knocked on the back door. Stepping over to the master bedroom window for a glimpse inside, he was confronted by horrific carnage.

The bloodied bodies of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and his son, 11-year-old Christopher, lay strewn from bedroom to hallway. Amid the clumps of hair, flesh and bones lay Joshua Ryen, 8, still breathing despite a slashed throat and skull fracture.

San Bernardino County authorities initially blamed the slayings on a cult or gang, as the five victims had 143 stab wounds from three different weapons.

But suspicion soon turned to one man: Kevin Cooper, who had escaped from a state prison not far from the Ryens' home two days before the murders.

Now, after 26 years, the legal hurdles to Cooper's execution have been surmounted. With the Supreme Court's decision last month not to review his claim of innocence, the 52-year-old becomes only the sixth of California's 697 death row prisoners cleared for lethal injection once a federal judge approves revised procedures.

But the exhaustion of Cooper's legal recourse hasn't silenced supporters who claim he was the victim of corrupt law enforcement and stunning bad luck.

The opponents of capital punishment who have long clung to puzzling clues and hints of police misconduct have been joined by a prison warden, 11 federal judges and five jurors now bothered by allegations that Cooper was framed.

"The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man," Judge William A. Fletcher of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in an impassioned dissent from the last review upholding Cooper's conviction. Deputies, he said, "manipulated and planted evidence in order to convict Cooper" and "discounted, disregarded, and discarded evidence pointing to other killers."

Prosecutors call those accusations nonsense, pointing to the dozens of judgments affirming Cooper was the killer.

In the state's filing with the Supreme Court urging denial of Cooper's last petition, Deputy Atty. Gen. Holly Wilkens dismissed the notion of prosecutorial misconduct.

"Instead," she argued, "his inability to prove his innocence stems from the fact that he is so plainly guilty."

Prosecution's theory

As dusk fell on June 2, 1983, a 25-year-old black prisoner sporting braided hair, a brown jacket and the alias of David Trautman slipped out of an unfenced yard at the California Institution for Men at Chino where he had been sent a month earlier on a burglary conviction.

Making his way on foot across four miles of flat land to the bucolic horse country of Chino Hills, the escapee later identified as Cooper holed up in a vacant ranch house at the crest of palm-lined English Place, across a shallow ravine from the Ryen home.

There he plotted an escape to Mexico. He called two former girlfriends to ask for money and a ride to the border. Both turned him down.

According to the prosecution theory that swayed a jury in San Diego, where the trial was moved due to publicity, Cooper left his hide-out around midnight June 4, picking his way across 125 yards to the unlocked Ryen home. Acting alone and wielding a hatchet, a hunting knife and an ice pick, prosecutors said, Cooper savagely hacked up his victims before stealing the family station wagon for his escape to Tijuana. The 1977 Buick was found in Long Beach a week later.

As a massive manhunt for the fugitive ensued, deputies collected evidence placing Cooper at the hide-out house: Butts from hand-rolled cigarettes containing the type of tobacco supplied to inmates, a wool blanket with his semen, a blood-dabbed green button, a leather hatchet sheath and sole prints from prison-issued Pro Keds Dude sneakers. A hatchet smeared with the blood and hair of the victims was found along a nearby road.

Inside the Ryen home, the clues were few but damning -- a bloody shoe print on a sheet in the master bedroom and a single drop of blood on a wall in the hallway.

A day after the murders, authorities learned of Cooper's prison escape and that he wasn't just a burglar. He had fled a Pennsylvania psychiatric facility and was wanted in the rape and kidnapping of a teenage girl. Dist. Atty. Dennis Kottmeier filed murder charges against Cooper four days after the killings.

Cooper was arrested near Santa Cruz Island after seven weeks on the lam, spent first in Mexico and then as a crew member on a sailboat cruising the Baja and Southern California coasts. He was nabbed by police investigating reports of a rape at knifepoint aboard another vessel.

During his five-month trial, jurors heard from 140 witnesses. It took them five days and 15 votes to agree on a guilty finding.

After dozens of appeals, petitions and complaints failed to overturn the verdict, Cooper's execution was set for Feb. 10, 2004.

Doubts pile up

Contradictions to the sole-killer theory emerged as swiftly as the scenario took hold.

Josh Ryen, taken by helicopter to Loma Linda University Medical Center, told Deputy Erwin Sharp through a hand-squeezing code suggested by the lawman that three white men were in his home during the attack. On June 15, as he recuperated and played a game of Uno with Reserve Sheriff's Deputy Luis Simo, a wanted poster depicting Cooper flashed on the television screen. Simo testified that Josh told him "that was not the guy who did it."

Four days after the murders, a woman named Diana Roper summoned a sheriff's deputy and turned over a pair of bloody coveralls she said her ex-boyfriend, a convicted contract killer named Lee Furrow, had left at her home in Mentone the night of the murders. Roper had seen Furrow earlier that night wearing a tan Fruit of the Loom T-shirt she'd bought for him. He wasn't wearing the T-shirt when he was dropped off by a car, shed the coveralls and took off on his motorcycle, Roper said in a sworn statement.

Roper's account was dismissed by prosecutors as the unreliable word of "a scorned woman," and police destroyed the coveralls before Cooper's defense ever learned of their existence.

A tan T-shirt identical to the one Roper described was found about a mile from the crime scene, stained with blood. A blue T-shirt with bloodstains was also found nearby and turned in to police. Neither was introduced at trial; the blue shirt disappeared altogether from the Sheriff's Department's records.

The dot of blood found in the Ryens' hallway was identified as coming from a black male. It was consumed in the initial testing, criminalist Daniel J. Gregonis said at trial. But more of it appeared 15 years later for DNA testing that would prove useful to the prosecution.

The shoe print on the bed sheet wasn't spotted by analysts until the bedding had been in the crime lab for weeks, and after investigators had obtained a size 9 Pro Keds Dude shoe from the prison.

The button found in the hide-out house came from a green prison-issue jacket, not the brown version Cooper was wearing when he escaped.

"Fingerprint evidence strongly suggests that the hatchet sheath was planted in the bedroom soon after the hatchet was discovered," Fletcher wrote in his 101-page dissent detailing concerns he had with nine key pieces of evidence used to convict Cooper.

In the Ryens' kitchen, an intruder lingered long enough to grab a beer from the refrigerator, leaving bloody smudges and tossing the empty can in the yard. Yet Peggy Ryen's purse and cash sitting in plain view on the kitchen counter weren't touched.

Fourteen years after the murders, when a reporter who covered Cooper's trial ran into former Sheriff's Deputy Albert Anthony Ruiz at a San Diego auto shop, he told her that the killings were a drug deal gone bad and that the people sent to exact revenge "hit the wrong family on that hill."

More than a year after Cooper's conviction in 1985, William W. Baird, the San Bernardino County crime lab manager who had testified about the bloody shoe print, was fired for stealing drugs from the evidence locker.

Fighting the verdict

On the eve of his scheduled Feb. 10, 2004, execution, Cooper won a reprieve from the 9th Circuit on a technicality: Prosecutors had failed to inform the defense that the Chino prison warden, Midge Carroll, had notified them of erroneous trial testimony that the Pro Keds Dude sneakers were only available to prisons.

Five of Cooper's jurors also had developed doubts by then. They sent letters to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a month before the execution date. Why, one asked, did Josh Ryen not recognize Cooper as his assailant? Why were there no fingerprints found, why only a single drop of blood that could have been Cooper's? Why wasn't the empty beer can tested for saliva?

"I am angry that the hair has not been tested," another juror wrote, referring to pale hairs found clutched in Jessica Ryen's rigid hands. "I am angered to learn that the officer who testified about the footprints was caught stealing drugs from the evidence locker. . . . I am bothered to know that a convicted murderer [Furrow] who years before had dismembered his female victim was near the scene at the time, that his hatchet was missing and that his girlfriend called police and turned in his bloody coveralls."

The 9th Circuit ordered an evidentiary hearing and DNA testing of the hairs that had clearly not come from Cooper. The appeals court also approved the defense's request that the tan T-shirt be tested for evidence that Cooper's blood had been planted on it.

High concentrations of the preservative EDTA were found in the T-shirt stains identified as Cooper's blood but not in those identified as Doug Ryen's, suggesting, the defense claimed, that Cooper's blood came from the vial drawn by police and treated with the preservative, not from a cut sustained during the killings. The few hairs tested were said to be from the victims.

The federal judge overseeing the hearing, Marilyn Huff, hewed faithfully to restrictions imposed by a 1996 act of Congress to speed up death-penalty appeals. Noting that the evidence disputes had been dismissed by Cooper's trial jury, she upheld his death sentence in May 2005.

In the 9th Circuit's May 11 decision upholding Huff's ruling, Judge Pamela A. Rymer, writing for a narrow majority, rejected Fletcher's criticism, saying his dissent "improperly marshals the facts in the light most favorable to Kevin Cooper."

With two words on Nov. 30, the Supreme Court put an end to the legal odyssey that has extended through half of Cooper's life: Petition Denied.

carol.williams@latimes.com

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