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Judge Doubts Validity of Blood Test Sought by Cooper Defense

The procedure may not be scientifically sound, she says, and even the finding of a suspect substance may not prove police tampering.

June 04, 2004|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A federal district court judge said Thursday that she had serious doubts about the reliability of a blood test requested by attorneys for death row inmate Kevin Cooper, who was convicted of murdering four people in Chino Hills in 1983.

Just hours before Cooper's scheduled execution in February, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals granted Cooper a stay and ordered a lower court to determine whether additional evidence testing was warranted and if key evidence in the case had been withheld by prosecutors.

Cooper's attorneys contend that blood found on a T-shirt near the murder scene -- which tested positive for Cooper's DNA -- could have been planted by police. They asked U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff to have the evidence tested for a preservative known as EDTA, arguing that its existence would indicate the blood had been taken from the police laboratory.

But Huff said she had serious doubts that the test was scientifically legitimate and said that even if traces of EDTA were found, that would not prove the blood had been planted.

Huff also told Cooper's attorneys that she was skeptical of their recommended EDTA expert, since he has been "highly criticized" by two other courts and that he said in an earlier hearing that part of his testing is done by an "eyeball method."

"This was sold [by the defense] as an easy-to-do test," Huff said. "The eyeball approach doesn't seem to be the test we or the Court of Appeals would like."

Huff stopped short of ruling on the request, and also is weighing whether to order mitochondrial DNA testing of a few hairs left on the hands of one of the murder victims. Cooper's attorneys said the hairs may prove someone else is responsible for the slayings.

The court hearing, which concludes today, fell on the 21st anniversary of the grisly Chino Hills murders.

In 1983, Cooper escaped from the state prison in Chino and hid out near the Chino Hills home of Douglas and Peggy Ryen. Cooper was convicted of killing the Ryens, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and an 11-year-old house guest with a knife and a hatchet. He also slit the throat of the Ryens' 8-year-old son, Josh, who survived.

State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer attended a portion of Thursday's hearing and said afterward that further delays for Cooper's execution would be a "terrible injustice."

"I have absolutely no doubt about [Cooper's] guilt," said Lockyer, who was in San Diego on another matter.

Lockyer spoke briefly with Mary Ann Hughes, whose son Christopher was killed while he spent the night at the Ryens' home. "We're not going to quit," he told her.

Earlier in the week, Huff heard testimony about a key piece of evidence: a shoe print at the murder scene that matched Cooper's Pro Ked Dudes shoes.

During Cooper's murder trial, the prosecution said Cooper was wearing a type of tennis shoe that could have been worn only by a prisoner.

But in January, Midge Carroll, the former warden at the Chino prison, gave a sworn declaration that she had learned that Cooper was wearing tennis shoes that were "common" and "available to the general public through Sears and Roebuck and other such retail stores."

She said she relayed the information to a San Bernardino County sheriff's detective but was ignored. Cooper's attorney said prosecutors never turned over that evidence, violating a law that requires prosecutors to disclose all possible exculpatory evidence.

The 9th Circuit cited that possible violation as one of the main factors in the decision to stay Cooper's execution, and asked the lower court judge to review the allegation.

Three Pro Ked Dudes shoe prints were left in a neighboring vacant house where Cooper hid before the murders, on the bedsheets near Doug and Peg Ryen's bodies and on a spa cover outside the couple's master bedroom.

Don P. Luck, a 41-year veteran of sales for Stride Rite Corp., which manufactured Pro Ked Dudes, said he managed all of the company's major sales accounts during the early 1980s, insisting the shoe "was not sold to major retailers."

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