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Doubts remain -- but legal recourse does not -- in Kevin Cooper case

With his last appeal denied, Cooper faces execution in the 1983 slaying of a Chino Hills family. Several jurors, judges and a prison warden now question the evidence that convicted him.

January 03, 2010|By Carol J. Williams

On a Sunday morning in June 1983, Bill Hughes arrived at a hilltop home in Chino Hills, concerned that his young son hadn't returned home in time for church after a sleepover.

Hughes had called from his own home nearby but had gotten no answer. No one stirred when he knocked on the back door. Stepping over to the master bedroom window for a glimpse inside, he was confronted by horrific carnage.

The bloodied bodies of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and his son, 11-year-old Christopher, lay strewn from bedroom to hallway. Amid the clumps of hair, flesh and bones lay Joshua Ryen, 8, still breathing despite a slashed throat and skull fracture.

San Bernardino County authorities initially blamed the slayings on a cult or gang, as the five victims had 143 stab wounds from three different weapons.

But suspicion soon turned to one man: Kevin Cooper, who had escaped from a state prison not far from the Ryens' home two days before the murders.

Now, after 26 years, the legal hurdles to Cooper's execution have been surmounted. With the Supreme Court's decision last month not to review his claim of innocence, the 52-year-old becomes only the sixth of California's 697 death row prisoners cleared for lethal injection once a federal judge approves revised procedures.

But the exhaustion of Cooper's legal recourse hasn't silenced supporters who claim he was the victim of corrupt law enforcement and stunning bad luck.

The opponents of capital punishment who have long clung to puzzling clues and hints of police misconduct have been joined by a prison warden, 11 federal judges and five jurors now bothered by allegations that Cooper was framed.

"The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man," Judge William A. Fletcher of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in an impassioned dissent from the last review upholding Cooper's conviction. Deputies, he said, "manipulated and planted evidence in order to convict Cooper" and "discounted, disregarded, and discarded evidence pointing to other killers."

Prosecutors call those accusations nonsense, pointing to the dozens of judgments affirming Cooper was the killer.

In the state's filing with the Supreme Court urging denial of Cooper's last petition, Deputy Atty. Gen. Holly Wilkens dismissed the notion of prosecutorial misconduct.

"Instead," she argued, "his inability to prove his innocence stems from the fact that he is so plainly guilty."

Prosecution's theory

As dusk fell on June 2, 1983, a 25-year-old black prisoner sporting braided hair, a brown jacket and the alias of David Trautman slipped out of an unfenced yard at the California Institution for Men at Chino where he had been sent a month earlier on a burglary conviction.

Making his way on foot across four miles of flat land to the bucolic horse country of Chino Hills, the escapee later identified as Cooper holed up in a vacant ranch house at the crest of palm-lined English Place, across a shallow ravine from the Ryen home.

There he plotted an escape to Mexico. He called two former girlfriends to ask for money and a ride to the border. Both turned him down.

According to the prosecution theory that swayed a jury in San Diego, where the trial was moved due to publicity, Cooper left his hide-out around midnight June 4, picking his way across 125 yards to the unlocked Ryen home. Acting alone and wielding a hatchet, a hunting knife and an ice pick, prosecutors said, Cooper savagely hacked up his victims before stealing the family station wagon for his escape to Tijuana. The 1977 Buick was found in Long Beach a week later.

As a massive manhunt for the fugitive ensued, deputies collected evidence placing Cooper at the hide-out house: Butts from hand-rolled cigarettes containing the type of tobacco supplied to inmates, a wool blanket with his semen, a blood-dabbed green button, a leather hatchet sheath and sole prints from prison-issued Pro Keds Dude sneakers. A hatchet smeared with the blood and hair of the victims was found along a nearby road.

Inside the Ryen home, the clues were few but damning -- a bloody shoe print on a sheet in the master bedroom and a single drop of blood on a wall in the hallway.

A day after the murders, authorities learned of Cooper's prison escape and that he wasn't just a burglar. He had fled a Pennsylvania psychiatric facility and was wanted in the rape and kidnapping of a teenage girl. Dist. Atty. Dennis Kottmeier filed murder charges against Cooper four days after the killings.

Cooper was arrested near Santa Cruz Island after seven weeks on the lam, spent first in Mexico and then as a crew member on a sailboat cruising the Baja and Southern California coasts. He was nabbed by police investigating reports of a rape at knifepoint aboard another vessel.

During his five-month trial, jurors heard from 140 witnesses. It took them five days and 15 votes to agree on a guilty finding.

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