A California death row inmate convicted of killing a Chino Hills couple and two children 26 years ago lost his last appeal Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review his case.
Lawyers for Kevin Cooper, 52, failed to persuade the high court that doubts remain about whether he was the killer and whether authorities tampered with evidence.
Cooper was spared execution in 2004, when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals intervened just hours before the lethal injection was to be administered. But an evidentiary hearing ordered to evaluate new DNA evidence and Cooper's claims that prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence during his trial failed to convince a federal judge that the San Diego jury erred in finding him guilty in 1985.
The death penalty is on hold in California while corrections officials revise the state's lethal injection protocols. U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel ruled in 2006 that the procedures might expose condemned inmates to cruel and unusual punishment if, as alleged in court hearings, the first dose of the three-drug sequence failed to fully anesthetize the inmate.
California put to death 13 prisoners after capital punishment was restored as a sentencing option in 1976. The state's death row now houses 685 condemned prisoners.
Cooper has maintained his innocence since the slayings of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica and 11-year-old neighbor Christopher Hughes.
Three different weapons -- an ax, a hunting knife and an ice pick -- were used to inflict at least 143 wounds on the victims and the sole survivor of the attack, the Ryens' 8-year-old son Joshua.
During Cooper's 1984-1985 trial, the jury heard conflicting accounts of Josh Ryen's recollection of the night of the attack. Deputies who spoke with the boy immediately after he was evacuated by helicopter from the gory murder scene testified that Josh initially reported that three white men were in his house and that a television news broadcast showing a wanted poster of Cooper, who is black, prompted him to say Cooper wasn't the killer. Videotaped excerpts of Josh speaking with a psychiatrist were also played for the jury; on the tapes, Josh recalls only one intruder and can't tell the man's race or other details.
Defense lawyers for Cooper argued at his trial and in more than a dozen appellate proceedings that evidence suppressed or destroyed by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department pointed to three white men as the perpetrators, including a convicted contract killer.
"Evidence that we discovered after trial shows that Kevin is innocent of the crime for which he is now sentenced to die," Cooper's lead defense attorney, Norman Hile, said in vowing to continue the fight to halt his client's execution despite the high court denial.
The state Attorney General's office argued in its brief to the Supreme Court that Cooper's conviction has been repeatedly upheld by lower courts because the evidence of his guilt is "overwhelming."
The Kevin Cooper Defense Committee, a coalition of death penalty opponents, said the Supreme Court's refusal to review Cooper's case put California on a path "to do what Texas did in the Cameron Todd Willingham case -- execute an innocent man."
Willingham was put to death in 2004 for setting the house fire that killed his three children.
National experts notified the governor and parole board that the fire marshal's scientific analysis in the case was invalid and the arson designation unfounded, but the state officials failed to act ahead of Willingham's execution.