Why is Kevin Cooper still in prison, let alone on death row?
For more than 30 years, Cooper has been awaiting his eventual fate of death by lethal gas, California's preferred and "humane" method of capital punishment. He was convicted of killing two parents, their daughter, and a 10-year-old boy who was staying at the house on the June 1983 night they were killed. The only survivor was 8-year-old Josh Ryen.
Cooper still faces execution, despite overwhelming evidence that police and prosecutors rigged the case, hid evidence that would help his cause, and coached the lone 8-year-old witness to identify Cooper as the suspect:
- Cooper is black. Police were looking for three "white or hispanic" suspects in the aftermath of the murder.
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- On the night of the murder, neighbors saw three white men driving the Ryen family's station wagon away from the cul-de-sac where they lived.
- Little Josh himself saw Cooper on TV and said, "That's not the man who did it."
- Prosecutors illegally hid exculpatory evidence from the defense, including proof that footprints from the murder scene -- which they insisted matched Cooper's shoes -- did not actually match the accused man's footwear.
- A blood sample from the crime scene, which prosecutors said was Cooper's, was later tested by an independent lab, which found that the sample had been tampered with and did not match Cooper's DNA. Additionally, the first time a state criminologist tested the blood and concluded it was not Cooper's, someone altered the criminologist's original notes. That sample was crucial to the prosecutor's case.
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- When a woman came forward, said she thought her husband -- who was a convicted murderer -- had killed the Ryen family, and gave police blood-stained pants as evidence, detectives didn't test the pants and threw them out. The possibility of another suspect didn't match their theory that Cooper was the killer. Federal judges later ruled cops acted illegally by destroying evidence.
- Most damning of all to the prosecution's continuing insistence that they had the right man, five federal judges warned that "California may be about to execute an innocent man."
Despite all that, despite a lack of motive, a case that relied on shaky circumstantial evidence, and prosecutors who broke the law by denying Cooper his basic rights as an accused man, Cooper remains on death row. He's exhausted all of his appeals, and now his only hope is that California Gov. Jerry Brown will grant him a last-minute stay of execution.
This isn't the first time Cooper has come close to death at the hands of the government. On Feb. 10, 2004, Cooper was standing naked in an execution chamber, waiting to die when federal judges intervened, ordering a review of evidence and stating "no person should be executed if there is doubt," according to NBC News.
"You watch the clock as your life goes off, minute by minute," Cooper told NBC. "I was ten feet away from being murdered."
The Cooper case is just one of many cases that prove the death penalty is barbaric, cruel, and incompatible with the values of a country that claims it has the best criminal justice system in the world.
Nationally, more than 330 people who were convicted of murder were later exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. A 2014 study by a University of Michigan research team found at least 4 percent of people convicted of murder since the 1970s were innocent. The study's authors told The Guardian that's a conservative estimate, and said the U.S. has executed innocent people. That's not including the thousands of collective years innocents have served in prison.
“There are a large number of [innocent] people who are sentenced to death, and despite our best efforts some of them have undoubtedly been executed," said Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan law professor and lead researcher of the study.
No human being -- guilty or not -- should be subjected to the years-long torture of preparing for death, then granted a reprieve, then preparing for death again, in a never-ending cycle of legal maneuvering.
Likewise, too many prosecutors take personal offense when convictions are overturned, and fight tooth and nail even when the evidence of innocence is overwhelming. Some are willing to go to extraordinary, illegal measures to make sure no suspect walks out of a courtroom an innocent man.
In 2015, a judge took the unprecedented step of barring the entire Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office from prosecuting murder cases. That's 250 prosecutors. The judge made his decision after defense attorneys began unraveling a cover-up that hid how prosecutors in the county have been breaking the law for decades by manipulating evidence and illegally bargaining for "witness" statements from jailhouse informants.
Despite the fact that his office intentionally withheld evidence that would have helped Cooper's defense, then-District Attorney Dennis Kottmeier claimed the Cooper conviction was "the strongest evidentiary case" he "had ever seen," NBC News reported.
If that's true, then we should shudder to think of all the "weaker" cases his office has prosecuted.
As Cooper's remaining days and hours expire, it's up to Gov. Brown to make sure another irreversible wrong isn't committed.