Published on Monday, February 9, 2004 by the New York Times
Protests Continue in California as Execution Nears
by Dean E. Murphy
OAKLAND, Calif., Feb. 8 — California is set to put to death a man convicted in 1985 of killing four people, in what, barring a reprieve, would be the fourth execution by the state in as many years and the first under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The man, Kevin Cooper, is scheduled to die by lethal injection just after midnight on Tuesday. Mr. Cooper, 46, who was convicted of killing two adults and two children after escaping from a prison in Southern California, has maintained his innocence.
Mr. Schwarzenegger, in his first clemency decision, described the evidence against Mr. Cooper as "overwhelming" and said the brutality of the killings — the four victims were hacked to death in a home near the prison in Chino — justified the death sentence.
"His is not a case for clemency," Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Repubican, said on Jan. 30.
A campaign of several weeks to spare Mr. Cooper's life continued in high gear on Sunday, with the Rev. Jesse Jackson raising questions about the evidence against him at a news conference here in Oakland and advocates of a clemency hearing holding a rally in Mr. Schwarzenegger's Los Angeles neighborhood, Brentwood.
"This is not a case of seeking mercy on the philosophy of opposition to the death penalty," Mr. Jackson said in an interview. "The outstanding information deserves a hearing."
Mr. Jackson said Mr. Cooper, who is black and had been in prison for burglary at the time of his escape, was at a disadvantage in his murder trial because of his race and income.
"If you had had your Johnnie Cochran dream team kind of lawyers, this would have been dealt with in court," he said. "But you didn't have a dream team."
Last week, Mr. Cooper's lawyers lost two legal battles on his behalf. In the first, the California Supreme Court refused to stay the execution so DNA evidence linking Mr. Cooper to the killings could be retested. In the second, a federal judge rejected contentions that lethal injections were cruel and unusual punishment.
But one of Mr. Cooper's lawyers, Lanny J. Davis, said Sunday that there had been "some amazingly late-breaking developments" in the case and that fresh appeals to halt the execution would be made Monday to Mr. Schwarzenegger, the United States attorney in Los Angeles, the California attorney general and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
"We are not asking Cooper be set free," Mr. Davis said. "We are not asking him to be declared innocent. We are not necessarily opposed to the death penalty, at least I am not. We are only asking for more time to investigate."
Mr. Davis released excerpts of statements made by a former police informant, Albert Ruiz, to state investigators on Friday that suggested the killings had resulted from "a hit gone sour" and that "Cooper was a scapegoat." Mr. Ruiz was also quoted as saying that "they got the wrong family" and that "they literally dropped the load off on Cooper."
Mr. Davis said Mr. Ruiz backed off some of those statements later in the same interview with the investigators. But Mr. Davis also released a deposition by Kristina M. Rebelo-Anderson, a former reporter for United Press International who wrote about the Cooper trial in 1985.
In her statement, Ms. Rebelo-Anderson said she met Mr. Ruiz by chance in 1997 while having her car stereo repaired.
"I told Mr. Ruiz that I was a reporter who covered most of the trial and that, in fact, I thought Mr. Cooper did commit the murders," Ms. Rebelo-Anderson said in the statement. "Mr. Ruiz, in turn, told me, `He didn't do it. We were told to plant evidence.' Mr. Ruiz went on to tell me during the 1997 conversation that the murders were a `hit on the wrong family on that hill.' "
Mr. Cooper's supporters hope that the new assertions will at least lead to a review of the DNA evidence against Mr. Cooper, which was obtained from a bloodstained shirt. Defense lawyers would like to have the sample tested for a preservative, which might indicate the evidence had been tampered with. They would also like a review of hair samples found in the hand of one of the victims, which were described as blond and could not have belonged to Mr. Cooper.
The one survivor of the attacks, Josh Ryen, who was 8 years old at the time, suggested then that there might have been multiple attackers who were not African-American. But in a letter provided to Mr. Schwarzenegger by prosecutors in San Bernardino County, Mr. Ryen said he was in favor of the execution.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company