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Newsom orders independent investigation into Kevin Cooper’s conviction

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday ordered a full and independent investigation into the case of Kevin Cooper, whose high-profile quadruple murder conviction three decades ago has been under scrutiny for years.

The inquest will examine “the facts underlying the conviction” and “all available evidence” as well as Cooper’s trial and subsequent appeals, a radical expansion of Newsom’s action two years ago when he ordered additional DNA testing on the evidence in the case.

Newsom, in an executive order issued Friday afternoon, appointed international law firm Morrison and Foerster to serve as special advisor to the State Board of Parole Hearings and conduct the investigation. The investigation is in response to Cooper’s pending request to the governor for leniency and “innocence clauses”.

The governor said he was taking this step, in part because the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office and Cooper’s defense attorneys “have radically different views” on the interpretation of the new DNA evidence and the reliability and integrity of that evidence.

In the order, Newsom said he took no position regarding Cooper’s guilt or innocence.

Cooper’s lawyers, who have asked an outside group to investigate the case since the 2016 clemency petition, applauded Newsom’s action.

“We are delighted that the governor has ordered an independent investigation,” said Norman Hile, an attorney representing Cooper. “We are confident that a full examination will show that Kevin Cooper is innocent and should be released from prison.”

Dist. of San Bernardino County. Atty. Jason Anderson said new DNA evidence confirms Cooper is guilty of the murders, and he criticized Newsom for ignoring jury findings in Cooper’s criminal trial and decades of court rulings that confirmed his guilt.

“We call on the executive branch to respect the findings of 38 years of decision-making within the judiciary which have each time confirmed Kevin Cooper’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Anderson said. “There are no unanswered questions. So for it to be ordered is inappropriate.

As governor, Newsom has been a staunch opponent of capital punishment. Just months after taking office, he imposed a general reprieve on all death row inmates in California and promised that no executions would take place while he was governor.

Friday’s order comes nearly three months after the National Assembly. for the Advancement of Colored People urged the governor to launch an “innocence investigation,” saying there was growing evidence that cast doubt on Cooper’s guilt and the impartiality of the investigation and prosecution.

“Mr. Cooper is a black man who has spent more than 35 years on death row, despite serious concerns about the integrity of the state case and the risk that it may be racially discriminated against. The serious doubts about Mr. Cooper’s guilt have only worsened over time, ”the letter from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund reads.

Cooper has always maintained his innocence and accused law enforcement of filing evidence and ignoring witness statements that could have helped exonerate him. He lost more than a dozen appeals and was due to be executed in February 2004 when he was suspended at the last minute by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Cooper, 63, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1985 for the murder of three family members and an unrelated boy, Christopher Hughes, 11. They were found hacked and slashed to death in a house in Chino Hills.

Hughes’ father discovered the murders when he went home to find his son. Through the window, he saw the bodies of Doug and Peggy Ryen; their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica; and Christophe. They had been stabbed 143 times in total with an ice pick, ax and knife. The Ryens’ 8-year-old son Joshua was slashed in the throat but survived.

Two days before the murders, Cooper had escaped from a prison in Chino, where he was serving a sentence for burglary. Investigators said they found ample evidence – cigarette butts, a prisoner’s uniform button, a leather ax scabbard – that showed Cooper spent two days in a house near the Ryens after his escape.

He was arrested about seven weeks after the murders.

During Cooper’s trial, Joshua Ryen made a videotaped statement saying he only saw one man or maybe a shadow in his house.

But after Joshua was airlifted to a hospital following the attack, he told a sheriff’s deputy and a social worker that his attackers were three white men. An hour later he said they were Latinos. Later that month, the boy told a deputy that Cooper, who is black, was not the killer after seeing the man’s face on TV.

At trial and throughout the appeal process, Cooper’s attorneys argued that the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department destroyed or suppressed evidence suggesting the attackers were three white men, including a convicted hitman. .

In 2018, Cooper’s legal saga sparked renewed interest from judges and former prosecutors, including thoughtful American Democrats in California Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, who called for advanced DNA testing of evidence in the case. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown agreed and, shortly before stepping down, issued an executive order for DNA testing.

Cooper’s supporters, some of whom were prompted to act by a New York Times article in 2018, seized conflicting evidence in the case, including a witness statement that the attack was carried out by three men white or latino.

There have been calls for an independent investigation into the case for decades.

In 2004, Lanny Davis, the former counsel to President Clinton who led Cooper’s defense at the time, said national and local prosecutors who had pushed for Cooper’s execution were “unable to conduct a fair and full investigation “.

In 2018, four deans of law schools in California called for an independent investigation, saying Cooper’s declaration of innocence “has never been fully and fairly assessed.”

Times editors Alejandra Reyes-Velarde and John Myers contributed to this report.

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