The Death Belt

On the Precipice

A Man Many Believe is Innocent Sits on Death Row, and Questions Persist

Second in a series

Kevin Cooper, a convicted burglar who escaped from the minimum-security section of a prison, was convicted of the 1983 murders of a family and their 11-year-old overnight guest in Chino Hills, Calif. Cooper, who was sentenced to death and has spent the past 33 years on death row, has always maintained his innocence. (Photo courtesy: Inland Valley Daily Bulletin)

By Rachel Fobar
The Medill Justice Project

SAN QUENTIN, Calif.—What if?

What if an innocent man is convicted? What if that convict is sent to death row? What if he’s then executed?

These are fundamental questions, abolitionists say, at the heart of a heated debate about the death penalty in the United States—one of the only Western democracies to still execute prisoners. Death penalty supporters say such questions are moot—that only the guilty are condemned, given the extensive appeals process. But for Kevin Cooper, who has spent the past 33 years on California’s death row for a quadruple homicide he says he didn’t commit, these aren’t just questions. They’re a plea. And the answer to those questions has taken special urgency: Voters in 2016 passed a measure to speed up executions, so he’s running out of time.

As the number of death sentences issued in the United States has steadily declined since the late 1990s, a pocket of America designated the new “Death Belt” has bucked the national trend. This new capital of capital punishment isn’t Texas, Florida or other states in or near the Deep South, the regions historically known for their long lines of prisoners on death row. It’s California. With this series, The Medill Justice Project features stories about the people of Southern California whose everyday lives are impacted by sentences of death.

Cooper isn’t sure anyone is listening—especially those with the power to act. “It’s a feeling that I don’t matter,” he says from death row at San Quentin State Prison across the bay from San Francisco. “That my life has no value to these people. That I’m a nothing.”

It’s a feeling he’s harbored since he was a little boy, long before the horrific murders for which he was convicted in 1985. Cooper would often run away from his home in Pittsburgh to escape his adoptive father, who “beat the hell out of me,” he says. He’d ride his bike with his dog, Trooper, a mutt, running alongside him, as he found refuge in his friends’ houses–their names long forgotten, not their mercy.

“I learned early on to run,” he says, recalling his since deceased adoptive parents. “That was my way out.”

In 1983, when Cooper was a little over a month into a four-year prison sentence for burglary, he did what he always did. He ran.

That June, Cooper climbed through a hole in a fence and walked out of the minimum-security section of California Institution for Men, a prison in Chino in southern California. Cooper ended up hiding in a vacant home in Chino Hills, horse country just over 30 miles from Los Angeles.

Less than 150 yards away from his hideout, a family of four slept. Doug and Peggy Ryen, both 41, lived on their Arabian horse ranch with their two children, 10-year-old Jessica and 8-year-old Josh. Josh had a friend at the house for a sleepover.

The grave of Christopher Hughes, who was spending the night at the Ryens’ house the night of the murders, is decorated for Christmas 34 years after his death. (Rachel Fobar/The Medill Justice Project)

When the friend, 11-year-old Chris Hughes, didn’t come home in time for Sunday mass the next morning, his father went looking for him. Peering through the glass doors of the Ryen master bedroom, he discovered a bloody panorama. The five victims had suffered more than 140 wounds combined, according to court records, and the attacker—or attackers—had used several weapons, including a hatchet, at least one knife and possibly an ice pick. Miraculously, Josh survived, even though his throat had been slit, he had been stabbed twice and he had been hit in the head with a hatchet. Everyone else perished.

Once news of Cooper’s prison break spread, police zeroed in on him as a suspect.

Before the murders, Cooper had been convicted of more than five burglaries, and he had escaped state custody at least twice. Less than three months before the murders, he was charged with kidnapping and sexually assaulting a minor—charges he denies—but the case didn’t go to trial and he was not convicted. When he was arrested in late July 1983, he was initially brought in because of another rape accusation. Cooper denied the charge, saying he was having consensual sex with a woman when her husband walked in and called authorities. He was not brought to trial or convicted in that case either.

Cooper admits he was a petty criminal who burglarized homes and hotwired cars, but insists he’s not a murderer.

“I never saw the Ryen house,” he says. “I never even knew it was there.”

David Alexander, who represented Cooper in some of his appeals, says he realized his case was unique when he took it on in 2003: “This is not a death penalty case,” he says. “This is really a wrongful conviction.”

Cooper’s pro-bono attorney for the last 14 years, Norman Hile, says the prosecution’s theory that one man alone wielded at least three weapons to massacre five victims is “physically impossible.”

Hile adds, “There’s no way that a single person could have committed the murders that he was convicted of.”

Though the prosecution theorized Kevin Cooper killed the Ryens and Chris Hughes so he could steal the family station wagon, cash left on the counter and other valuables were not taken. (Photo courtesy: Norman Hile)

What motivated the killer—or killers—remains uncertain; the prosecution said Cooper killed so he could steal the family’s car, but the Ryens had left the keys in their station wagon and pickup truck, which were parked in the driveway. Inside the house, in plain view, was cash. Also untouched were several credit cards, jewelry and weapons, according to police reports. John Patrick O’Connor, who investigated the case as the author of a book about Cooper’s conviction, says the brutality of the crimes, especially the killing of children, leaves him believing a vendetta was involved. “They’re not just killing these people, they’re annihilating them,” he says. This, he says, excludes Cooper, who “didn’t know these people.”

The night of the murders, a neighbor saw the Ryen station wagon hurtling down the street away from their house, and two more witnesses who were driving near the Ryens’ home saw three or four men speeding away in a station wagon that resembled the Ryens’ vehicle. The station wagon was later recovered at a church parking lot in Long Beach. A day after the murders, as another witness was driving near a freeway entrance, she took note of a station wagon that almost hit her car. She saw three young white men in the car, blasting music and looking “crazed” or “manic.” She took down the license plate. It was the Ryens’ car.

Cooper’s DNA was found in blood on a tan T-shirt discarded near the crime scene and in a drop of blood in the Ryens’ home. Further testing revealed the blood on the T-shirt contained heightened levels of a chemical called EDTA, which police use to preserve blood samples. Hile, Cooper’s attorney, says in a clemency petition to Gov. Jerry Brown that this suggests the blood was planted from a vial onto the T-shirt. Hile has requested permission to test for EDTA in the blood drop found in the Ryens’ home. In 2004, when Cooper’s blood sample, drawn in 1983, was tested, someone else’s DNA was found mixed with his. Hile says this means someone else’s blood must have been added to that vial “to replace blood used for planting.”

Demonstrators gather to protest Kevin Cooper’s execution, which was scheduled for a minute after midnight on Feb. 10, 2004. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Cooper, who has maintained his innocence all along, has drawn widespread attention to his case. In 2004, a crowd of about 60 protestors, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and actor-turned-death penalty opponent Mike Farrell, gathered outside then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s home, holding signs and chanting, “Save Kevin Cooper!” In 2009, after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to rehear Cooper’s case, Judge William Fletcher filed a dissent of more than 100 pages, writing, “The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and members of the United Nations Human Rights Council reviewed Cooper’s case and reported that he had not received a fair trial. An execution, the commission warned, would be “a serious and irreparable violation of the basic right to life.”

In 2015, Peggy Ryen’s half-sister, who asked not to be named in this story partly because she believes the killers are still at large, wrote to Gov. Brown, explaining what she said were flaws in the case: That Peggy was strong. She had trained powerful stallions. She was experienced with guns. Peggy once shot a snake in the head with a rifle within seconds of spotting it. And she couldn’t have been overpowered by a solo attacker, her half-sister says; if Peggy’s husband was attacked first, Peggy would’ve stepped in.

Jessica, Josh, Doug and Peggy Ryen lived on an Arabian horse ranch in Chino Hills. (Photo courtesy: Inland Valley Daily Bulletin)

“You think my sister’s standing there, watching them?” her half-sister says in an interview. “… I believe in the death penalty, but I don’t believe Kevin’s the one.”

Cooper is one of nearly 750 inmates on California’s death row. Since the state’s death penalty was reinstated in 1978, three California death row inmates have been acquitted or have had charges against them dismissed. Nationwide, 161 people have been acquitted, pardoned or won a dismissal of charges after receiving a death sentence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit organization that distributes information about capital punishment. Of the more than 1,450 people executed in the United States since 1976, the center reports there is strong evidence that at least 14 may have been innocent. A 2014 study in the National Academy of Sciences estimated that as many as 50 innocent people had been executed in the previous 35 years.

That number is irrelevant to those who believe Cooper is guilty. Through a spokesperson, San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos declined to comment, saying “there is pending litigation involving this case.” Dennis Kottmeier, then-San Bernardino County district attorney who prosecuted Cooper, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But during the 1985 trial, Kottmeier highlighted several pieces of evidence, including the drop of blood in the Ryens’ house and the proximity of the hideout house to the crime scene, and in his closing statement, he said the jury could “look into [Cooper’s] eyes” and “see the killing countenance.”

When you look into Cooper’s eyes today, what you see is frustration. Cooper spends 18 hours a day locked in a 4.5 by 11-foot cage. His hands are cuffed behind his back whenever he leaves the cell, he is strip-searched and he’s referred to as C65304. He has to rely on others to bring him what he needs, from meals to toilet paper.

“This,” he says, “is man-made hell.”

A guard photographs Kevin Cooper during a 2017 interview with MJP at San Quentin State Prison. (Photo courtesy: San Quentin State Prison)

Now a 60-year-old man with graying hair, Cooper says, “I don’t run anymore.” Instead, he’s studied African-American history. He’s learned that, as a black man, he comes from a people with a “history of fighting back.”

Inside these walls, Cooper taught himself to read beyond an elementary level, looking up words he didn’t know in the dictionary. This is where he learned to type. His education begins at 5:30 every morning when Cooper wakes up in his cell. He sits on an overturned five-gallon white bucket and rests his typewriter in front of him on his bed. The majority of his days are devoted to working on his case, painting, reading and writing essays about racism and the death penalty.

Using the same bucket that doubles as a chair, he washes his sheets and clothes, hanging them up to dry on a clothesline made of old shoestrings.

Cooper has been working on his memoir for more than a decade. It’s a struggle. “He can’t end it until it ends,” says his editor Narda Zacchino, former Sacramento bureau chief at the Los Angeles Times.

Before he was arrested, “The death penalty never crossed my mind,” he says. Now, it looms over him. Cooper, after all, knows what it’s like to be executed—almost.

A minute after midnight, on February 10, 2004, he was scheduled to die by lethal injection.

“My eye was on that clock,” he says of the days leading up to his scheduled execution. “… Everywhere around, you see clocks. Clocks you never seen before in all the years you been here, but all the sudden, clocks is [sic] everywhere.”

Less than four hours before he was supposed to die, he learned he wouldn’t. The U.S. Supreme Court gave him a stay of execution.

Fourteen years later, he still sees what was supposed to happen. He sometimes walks past the building that houses the execution chamber. He still remembers what happened: He sees the metal American flag pins on the guards’ lapels reflect the light, he feels a tourniquet tighten around his arm, he hears a prison doctor discuss which vein would be best to plunge the needle in.

In 2014, a botched execution left Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett convulsing, groaning and trying to speak until he died, almost forty-five minutes after the first drug was injected. In a country where that happens, Americans can’t say the United States doesn’t condone torture, Cooper says.

“That’s a damn lie,” he says, “because they tortured me.”

Cooper considers it torture when you know you’re going to be strapped down to a gurney and, at an appointed time, injected with a drug cocktail that will end your life. But he believes his life has a purpose: to end the death penalty. “I believe that’s what my life was saved for,” Cooper says.

In 2016, Hile, his attorney, submitted a clemency petition to Gov. Brown. Unlike many clemency petitions, which ask that the condemned inmate’s life be spared, this petition asked for a chance to do a final round of DNA testing, including on the blood spot extracted from the Ryen home and the tan T-shirt found near the crime scene, to “determine once and for all if he’s guilty,” Hile says. Scientific testing could answer that question, he says, and he’s baffled as to why attempts to test evidence have been blocked.

“Isn’t the truth what we really want to get to?” he asks.

When reached for comment, Ali Bay, deputy press secretary for Gov. Brown, said, “I don’t anticipate we will weigh in on this specific case.”

Kevin Cooper listens as a judge sentences him to death in 1985. (Photo courtesy: AP)

The courts last year upheld Proposition 66, which sought to accelerate the timetable for California executions. It’s unclear, though, how much time Cooper has left. While the courts ratified the death penalty, they didn’t mandate how quickly the appeals process had to happen. What’s more, executions cannot resume because of a legal dispute over the state’s lethal injection protocol. What is certain is, because Cooper is one of the longest-serving prisoners on California’s death row—one of about 15 who’ve exhausted their appeals—he would be one of the first to be executed.

Clemency is Cooper’s last hope. If his clemency is denied and executions resume, Cooper says, “I’d be another dead man.”

It looked like Cooper was doomed at his 1983 preliminary hearing when a crowd of demonstrators swarmed outside, waving Confederate flags, shouting slurs and holding a hanged toy monkey, which wore a sign that declared, “Hang Kevin the Ape.”

Today, in a country where African-Americans make up more than 40 percent of the death row population but only 13.3 percent of the U.S. population, Cooper says little has changed. That racism still reigns. That he’s still in prison for murder. That he’s still on death row.

“The only thing that has changed to me,” he says, “is the date.”

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