The Framing of Kevin Cooper on San Quentin’s Death Row

An interview with J. Patrick O’Connor

In this interview, author J. Patrick O’Connor discusses his newly released book Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper, explaining why he is convinced of Kevin Cooper’s innocence. O’Connor asserts that the police and prosecution orchestrated an obvious frame-up that continues to be upheld by federal appeals courts, albeit with the blatantly unfair rulings by US District Court Judge Marilyn Huff blocking critical forensics tests that had been ordered by the US Ninth Circuit Court in 2004.

This week, O’Connor launches a California book tour, beginning in the San Francisco Bay Area. On Monday, O’Connor sat down for a video interview with Prison Radio, where he discusses aspects of this story not addressed in this text interview. Marking the book release, Prison Radio has recorded a special message from Kevin Cooper himself. To learn more about Cooper’s case and what you can do to help, visit his website.

Prison Radio:  How did you get involved in Kevin Cooper’s case?

J. Patrick O’Connor:  During the fall of 2008, I was in the Bay Area on a book tour for The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal.  During the tour, supporters of Kevin’s approached me at various venues and asked me to consider writing a book on Kevin’s case.

PR:  How did you go about writing this book?

JPO:  I took on this project with no preconceived notions of Kevin’s guilt or innocence. Each case is different, radically so.

My first step was to read and notate the trial transcripts, documents of over 8,000 pages.  I then read all the police reports, witness interviews, and various newspaper accounts. I reviewed the most shocking crime scene and autopsy photos I’ve ever seen — and those I will never forget.  The autopsy reports on the four victims spoke of an incredibly frenzied killing field inside the Ryens’ master bedroom.

Finally, I read all of the appeals and the judicial rulings.  By this time I was ready to begin interviewing various people involved in Kevin’s trial and his subsequent appeals.

PR:  What’s the main obstacle to researching a case that is 25 years old?

JPO:  The biggest problem is that a number of key people involved in the investigation and trial have died, have retired, or have simply forgotten important factual details.

Another obstacle is that because Kevin technically still has appeals open to him, the San Bernardino County D.A.’s Office refused to discuss the case with me.  Nonetheless, I was able to interview Kevin’s trial attorney, his investigator, and the lead prosecutor at his trial as well as many other people familiar with Kevin’s trial and appeals.  For important background on the Ryens, I was able to interview Peggy Ryen’s half-sister and Doug Ryen’s sister.

PR:  Did you ever interview Kevin Cooper?

JPO:  I visited with Kevin for nearly three hours at San Quentin in the summer of 2009.  During this intense interrogation — I was in the process of deciding whether to take on this book possibility — I could sense Kevin felt a number of my questions were intrusive, if not insensitive.  There were things about his past and about his stay at the hideout house, and his fleeing to Mexico that I simply had to know to be able to go forward.

By the end of the interview I was taken with his equanimity and his resolve to prove he was wrongfully convicted of the gruesome Chino Hills murders. Over the next two years, I was able to pose many other questions to Kevin in written form, through his defense team at the Orrick law firm.

PR:  What convinced you that Kevin was innocent of these crimes?

JPO:  A lot of different things. To just cite one here: The prosecution and the police withheld and destroyed evidence that would have exonerated Kevin — evidence that was so exculpatory to him that had it been revealed Kevin would not have even been on trial for these murders.

PR:  Can you provide some background on Kevin Cooper’s case?

JPO:  Kevin Cooper was convicted of the brutal murders of a Chino Hills, California family and a young houseguest in 1985, and has been on death row at San Quentin since then. Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and The Framing of Kevin Cooper, shows how the sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office of San Bernardino County framed Cooper for these horrific murders and how the justice system has failed him at almost every turn in his long, drawn-out appeal process.

If it were not for a court-ordered moratorium on executions in California over the lethal injection controversy, Cooper – with no appeals remaining – would have been executed by now. It is expected the moratorium will not be lifted until at least 2013.

Two days before the murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and 11-year-old Christopher Hughes, Cooper escaped from a nearby prison and holed up in a vacant house 125 yards below the murdered family’s hilltop house.  Two days after the San Bernardino sheriff’s department established that Cooper had hid out there, it locked in on him as the lone assailant despite numerous eye witness reports that implicated three, young white men as the perpetrators.

From that day forward, four days after the murders were discovered, the sheriff’s department discarded information that pointed at other perpetrators, destroyed evidence that exculpated Cooper, and planted evidence that implicated him.

PR:  What eyewitness testimony is there pointing to other perpetrators?

JPO:  The only survivor of the attack, 8 1/2-year-old Josh Ryen, told ER personnel and a sheriff’s deputy that his assailants were three white men. Cooper is black.

Around midnight on the night of the murders, a couple, attempting to exit a driveway in their truck, saw three, young white men driving rapidly down the only road that leads away from the Ryens’ house in a station wagon that it turned out was stolen from the murdered family.

Shortly after that sighting, two women in a nearby bar saw two young white men, one wearing coveralls, with blood splatter on their faces and clothing.

Four days after the murders, another woman turned into the sheriff’s office bloody coveralls her boyfriend, a convicted murderer, had left on the floor of her closet.  The woman stated she had other information that implicated her boyfriend in the murders but wanted to be interviewed by homicide detectives.  She would have told them that her boyfriend’s hatchet was missing and that he no longer had the tan T-shirt he wore the Saturday of the murders.

PR: What aspects of the crime scene challenge the case against Cooper?

JPO:  The murders were committed with at least three, and probably four, weapons: a hatchet, an ice pick and one or two knifes. The theory that one perpetrator could or would use three or four weapons, is fundamentally counterintuitive.  At trial the prosecutor argued that Cooper was ambidextrous, which he is not.

Nor could one person control two able-bodied adults and three children running around the house, one of whom, Jessica, made it outside the house during the attack. The adult victims were each fit, 41-year-old chiropractors and both were mobile during the onslaught and fought hard for their lives, sustaining numerous defensive wounds to their hands and arms.

The crime scene evidence, according to the medical examiner, showed that the mother was cradling the daughter before the mother died, which meant one of the attackers had brought Jessica back into the house.  More than anything else, this meant there had to be more than one assailant because each parent kept a loaded gun in the master bedroom where the assault occurred.

There was an uncommon viciousness to the attack as though the killers meant not only to murder but to send a message of payback or retribution.  The medical examiner counted 144 wounds on the four murder victims, including 28 fractures and two amputations.  While Cooper’s trial was in progress, an inmate in a California prison told prison authorities and a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s detective that his cellmate had confessed to the Chino Hills murders, stating it was an Aryan Brotherhood hit but the three killers had gone to the wrong house.

PR:  What about the destroyed evidence you cited earlier?

JPO:  During Cooper’s preliminary hearing, the sheriff’s office destroyed the bloody coveralls.  The sheriff’s office claimed it never conducted any tests of the coveralls and admitted it never sent homicide detectives around to interview the woman who had turned them in.

The sheriff’s office also destroyed a bloody blue T-shirt discarded not far from the bar. Coupled with a tan T-shirt found the next day near the bar, the two bloody T-shirts were strong proof that at least two assailants had murdered the Ryens and Chris Hughes.  Testing of the tan T-shirt showed the blood on it matched the blood profile of Doug Ryen and no one else.

PR:  You also said that evidence was planted?

JPO:  Years later, in 2002, as Cooper was attempting to prove his innocence with DNA testing now afforded death row inmates by the California Legislature, his blood was now found on the tan T-shirt. To Cooper and his appeal attorneys, this showed rank tampering and planting of evidence, a belief that was greatly reinforced when it was revealed in 2004 that the vial containing Cooper’s blood, taken from him when he was arrested and kept all those years in the crime lab, was discovered now to contain the DNA of at least one other person.

A hatchet sheath and a bloody green button from a prison jacket were found at the hideout house a day after two detectives had searched the house and found nothing of evidentiary value.  Under oath one of the detectives denied looking in the bedroom but crime scene technicians lifted his fingerprints from the door of the closet where Cooper slept.  It would be established at Cooper’s trial that when Cooper escaped he was wearing a brown jacket, not a green one.

PR:  In 2004, Cooper came within hours of being executed before an extremely rare en banc ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed his execution and granted him a successive habeas corpus hearing in federal district court in San Diego. Can you explain more about this 2004 ruling?

JPO:  In particular, the Ninth Circuit ordered the district court to conduct DNA testing on the numerous blonde or light brown hairs found clutched in Jessica’s hand and other similar hairs deposited on other victims.

The Ninth also ordered EDTA testing to determine if Cooper’s blood had been planted on the tan T-shirt.  EDTA is an anti-clotting substance used in crime labs to preserve blood in vials, to prevent it from coagulating and breaking down. If tests conducted showed high levels of EDTA on the blood attributed to Cooper on the T-shirt, it would establish tampering.  If tampering were established, it would call into question all the forensic evidence the prosecution used to link Cooper to the crime scene.

It seemed that Cooper, after nineteen years of asserting his innocence from death row, would be vindicated.  At a minimum, the district court would have had to order a new trial or exonerate him outright.

Federal District Court Judge Marilyn Huff was not going to let that happen.  She had turned down both of Cooper’s previous habeas appeals, finding evidence of his guilt “overwhelming.”

PR:  How did Judge Marilyn Huff treat Cooper’s third habeas appeal?

JPO:  Over a period of a year, Judge Huff periodically held evidentiary hearings.  As she did, she methodically thwarted Cooper’s attorneys at every turn, refusing to allow Cooper’s experts to participate in the EDTA testing.  When the private lab the court hired to test Cooper’s blood on the T-shirt found elevated levels of EDTA, Judge Huff allowed the lab to retract its findings three weeks later on the grounds the lab itself was contaminated with EDTA during the testing.

Judge Huff dispensed with any further EDTA testing by ruling that the EDTA testing of the tan T-shirt conducted was not conclusive and that EDTA testing in general was an unproven science and of no value.  She was wrong on both counts:  both Cooper’s expert and the private lab found high levels on EDTA on the samples tested from the tan T-shirt and EDTA testing is a proven science.

The extreme bias against Cooper that Judge Huff displayed with impunity throughout the evidentiary hearings was at its most obvious when it came to the DNA testing of the hair clutched in various victims’ hands ordered by the en banc Ninth Circuit.  When a portion of those hairs had been tested in 2002, they were found to have no antigen roots, denoting that the hairs had fallen out rather than been yanked out during the assault.  Those hairs, the tests showed, were either from the victims themselves or were dog hairs.

There could be no purpose in retesting those hairs. However, over half of the hairs in the victims’ hands or adhered to their bodies had not been tested in 2002 and may well have contained antigen roots.    If the mitochondrial testing of those hairs resulted in a DNA that excluded all the victims and Cooper, there would be proof positive that someone other than Cooper was a perpetrator.  Judge Huff, incredibly, ordered testing only of the already tested hairs.

PR:  Did anything new come out at this point?

JPO:  During the evidentiary hearings, Cooper’s lawyers inadvertently learned for the first time about the bloody blue T-shirt found not far from the bar.  How could Judge Huff get around the implications of a bloody blue and a bloody tan T-shirt found one day apart near the bar?

In addition, the prosecution’s not disclosing the blue T-shirt to the defense was a major Brady violation that was so exculpatory to Cooper on its own that it mandated a new trial.

Judge Huff’s way around this inconvenient hurdle was to find that the blue T-shirt was in reality the tan T-shirt, even though the blue shirt was found the day before the tan shirt in a different location from the bar and the woman who found the bloody blue shirt testified at the hearing that the shirt she found was blue.

Judge Huff’s handling of Cooper’s habeas proceedings led Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William Fletcher to write, “There’s no way to say this politely. The district court failed to provide Cooper a fair hearing and flouted our direction to perform the two tests.”

PR:  Judge Fletcher also made a strong statement about Cooper’s case, as a guest speaker at Gonzaga University School of Law on April 12, 2010.

JPO:  Yes, Judge Fletcher delivered a lecture on the subject of the death penalty, holding that the problems with the administration of it are widespread and endemic rather than merely regional or local.

To illustrate he cited the Kevin Cooper case, stating “The case I am about to describe is horrible in many ways.  The murders were horrible.  Kevin Cooper, the man now sitting on death row, may well be – and in my view probably is – innocent.  And he is on death row because the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department framed him.”

Judge Fletcher, a Rhodes Scholar who roomed with Bill Clinton at Oxford University, said what happened in the Cooper case “is a familiar story.  It is by no means the usual story.  But it happens often enough to be familiar.  The police are under heavy pressure to solve a high profile crime.  They know, or think they know, who did the crime.  And they plant evidence to help their case along.”

PR:  A closing thought?

JPO:  Kevin Cooper has now spent half of his life on death row for a crime he had nothing to do with.  He is, in a word, a scapegoat.

Hans Bennett is a Philadelphia-based photo-journalist who has been documenting the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners for over five years. Read other articles by Hans, or visit Hans's website.