Opinion: California rightfully orders more DNA tests in the decades-old Kevin Cooper murder case

Gov. Newsom ordered expanded DNA tests of evidence used to convict Kevin Cooper in the 1983 murders of four people. Here musician Jonathan Richman joins a 2004 protest.

There’s something rotten at the heart of the murder convictions that have kept Kevin Cooper languishing on California’s death row for more than three decades. And an expanded order for DNA testing issued Friday morning by Gov. Gavin Newsom could help move us closer to finding, if not truth, then, at least, clarity.

Cooper has maintained his innocence in the gruesome slashing murders of four people, and near murder of a fifth, in Chino Hills in 1983. Without diving into the minutiae of years of legal challenges — for those interested, the details are here — it seems highly likely that investigators fabricated and planted evidence that implicated Cooper, at the time a walk-away from a minimum security prison.

The case against Cooper doesn’t pass the smell test, beginning with the argument that he single-handedly was able to inflict dozens of slash and stab wounds on five people, two of whom were adults. Never mind that the survivor initially said three white men did the attacking, or that police failed to properly investigate the crime, including throwing away blood-stained clothes that, if tested, could have implicated another man in the killings.

The evidence doesn’t pass the smell test.

Shortly before he left office, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered fresh DNA tests on four pieces of evidence used to tie Cooper to the crime: a tan T-shirt, an orange towel and a hatchet and its sheath. The T-shirt is most significant — trace DNA tests unavailable at the time of Cooper’s trial could determine whether he or someone else was wearing the shirt.

And it’s the same shirt that appears to have been stained with Cooper’s blood well after the crime. Court records show that the sample includes a preservative that police add to blood samples awaiting tests, which means it likely was splashed on the shirt after Cooper was arrested.

But Brown declined to order fresh tests of other pieces of evidence, including a button supposedly from Cooper’s prison shirt; fingernail scrapings and hairs from the victims’ hands and the crime scene; and two vials of blood — one collected from a hallway in the house and other from Cooper, which may have been tampered with.

Newsom has now ordered the additional tests that Brown declined.


That’s welcome news. It could turn out that the new testing affirms that the police had the right suspect all along, and that the results will end the long debate. But it seems more likely from the trail of evidence and arguments over the years that the test will, at a minimum, establish that Cooper did not receive a fair trial.

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And they could spotlight another suspect and his accomplices, who were identified in a devastating dissection of the case in a dissenting opinion a decade ago by Judge William A. Fletcher when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected yet another of Cooper’s appeals.

Reading that dissent is worth your time.

On one level, the at-best shaky case against Cooper underscores once again why the death penalty needs to be done away with. Even if Cooper is not exonerated by these tests, enough wrongfully convicted people — 156 and counting — have been released after years on death row to make it beyond a reasonable doubt that the system is too prone to manipulation to rely on for determining who lives or dies.

And that doesn’t even get at the fundamentally arbitrary nature of a system under which a murder in one county might be a capital offense, but not in the adjoining county, determined by the whims of the prosecutor’s office.

But it’s clear that the prosecution of Cooper and his treatment by the criminal justice system have been far from fair.

Yes, the murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen; their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica; and sleepover guest Christopher Hughes were heinous. They had been stabbed at least 143 times with an ice pick, an ax and a knife, and 8-year-old Joshua Ryen survived having his throat slashed. And Cooper was no angel.


But that’s not cause to skirt the requirements of justice.

I’m glad Newsom ordered the additional tests, and I hope they are done with deliberate speed. And if they cast reasonable doubt on Cooper’s guilt, Newsom must lead the state in doing the right thing, and finally free Cooper.