Governor Orders New Tests for Death Row Inmate

Kevin Cooper Was Arrested in Santa Barbara in 1983

Kevin Cooper was convicted of quadruple homicide.

Courtesy Photo

Kevin Cooper was convicted of quadruple homicide.

On Christmas Eve, Governor Jerry Brown ordered new DNA tests be conducted on key evidence that led to the conviction of Kevin Cooper, who was arrested in Santa Barbara County in 1983 and later convicted of quadruple homicide charges that landed him on death row. “It’s a foot in the door,” said Tom Parker, the Santa Barbara forensic investigator who has spent the last eight years “reinvestigating” Cooper’s conviction. “We’re hoping the new tests will show the murders were committed by someone other than Kevin Cooper. It’s a really big deal.”

Parker contends the prosecutors and investigators in San Bernardino County ​— ​where the killings took place ​— ​doctored evidence in order to secure a conviction against Cooper, who had just escaped from prison and was hiding out at the time of the killings in the Chino Hills residence next to the murder victims. Cooper would be arrested six weeks after the crime on a boat off Santa Cruz Island.

Parker and attorney Norman Hile had filed a lengthy clemency request with Governor Brown more than two years ago, asking that 12 items of evidence be retested. In his Christmas Eve act ​— ​during which Brown issued 143 pardons and 131 pardons—the governor ordered four pieces of evidence be retested.

Cooper was sentenced to death in 1985. At one point, Parker said, he came within three hours of being executed. That’s when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal issued a temporary stay to review the case. In 2009, the Court of Appeals denied Cooper’s motion for further tests, but 11 of the court’s 27 judges issued dissenting opinions. Five expressed concern that an innocent man might be executed.

Beaten and stabbed to death were three members of the Ryen family and an unrelated house guest. Surviving the attack was an 8-year-old witness, Joshua Ryen, who testified at the time that there were three killers and that they were all white men. Later, he stated one might have been Latino. Cooper is black. Cooper never confessed to the crime and was convicted because his blood was found on a tan T-shirt discarded near the scene of the crime and because his cigarette butts were reportedly found in the Ryen family’s stolen car.

According to Parker, the prosecution was so intent on convicting Cooper that Cooper’s blood was planted on the tan T-shirt. Parker said significant amounts of EDTA ​— ​a chemical used to preserve blood samples at crime scenes ​— ​was found with Cooper’s blood on the T-shirt. The T-shirt, Parker said, had traces of two different blood types with two different DNAs. Parker said the bloody T-shirt was found discarded near a country-western bar located close to the victims’ home. Three men, he claimed, reportedly arrived at that bar after the time of the killing, and two of whom were wearing blood-spattered clothes. When asked about the blood, they got up and left in a hurry, he said.

Parker stated he has interviewed one person to whom one of the killers confessed. He said he’s interviewed another to whom he all but confessed. He claims to have interviewed the alleged real killer for two - and - a - half hours in recent months. Parker said the man denied any role in the homicides, but in so doing contradicted previous statements he’d made to law enforcement authorities. “I’ve been doing this 50 years coming on next month,” Parker said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”