LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – California Governor Gavin Newsom on Friday ordered an independent investigation into the high-profile clemency petition of death row inmate Kevin Cooper, who maintains he is innocent of the 1983 quadruple murder for which he was convicted.
Newsom’s action to mount a comprehensive new inquiry into the case came 2 1/2 years after his predecessor and fellow Democrat, Jerry Brown, ordered four key pieces of evidence be retested for DNA that might exonerate Cooper, now aged 63.
Newsom himself expanded Brown’s order in February 2019, requiring additional DNA analysis of untested hairs from the victims’ hands and crime scene, blood samples, fingernail scrapings from the victims and a button.
In his latest order, Newsom said a full, independent review was called for in part because prosecutors and defense lawyers differed sharply over how the DNA test results “should be interpreted and the reliability and integrity of certain evidence.”
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a civil rights organization, urged Newsom in a letter in March to order an “innocence investigation.”
“Mr. Cooper is a Black man who has served over 35 years on death row, notwithstanding serious concerns about the integrity of the state’s case and the risk that it was marred by racial discrimination,” the group wrote.
Under Newsom’s latest order, the investigation will review trial and appellate records in the case, the facts underlying Cooper’s conviction and all available evidence, including the results of the newly conducted DNA tests.
Cooper was found guilty in 1985 of the hatchet murders of Douglas and Peggy Ryen, both 41, their daughter, Jessica, 10, and neighbor Christopher Hughes, 11, in a Chino Hills home about 35 miles east of Los Angeles.
At the time of the killings, Cooper was an escaped prison inmate who was hiding out in an empty house in the Ryens’ neighborhood, according to accounts of the case in the Los Angeles Times. A bloody hatchet sheath was found days after the crime in Cooper’s hideout house, and a hatchet in the grass nearby, the Times reported.
Cooper has professed his innocence for nearly four decades, maintaining that evidence against him was planted by law enforcement.
Newsom placed a moratorium on the death penalty in California in March 2019, soon after taking office, saying he was deeply troubled by the possibility of executing an innocent person, even though California voters have repeatedly backed capital punishment.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Kim Coghill)