Published on Monday, February 9, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Appeals Court Grants Stay to Condemned Killer Kevin Cooper
by Dan Kravets
A federal appeals court granted a stay that may block the execution early Tuesday morning of condemned killer Kevin Cooper, who has won support from celebrities including Denzel Washington and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday morning granted a request for an 11-judge rehearing of the case. It would be California's first execution in two years. In his first such act as governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger denied clemency for Cooper.
It was not immediately clear when the en banc panel would hear the latest challenge.
Cooper, who was convicted in the 1983 hacking deaths of four people, was scheduled to be executed just after midnight at San Quentin Prison after 19 years on death row.
Cooper has gained support from such actors who oppose the death penalty as Washington, Sean Penn and Mike Farrell, and from Jackson and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. In addition, three of the jurors who convicted Cooper called for a stay of execution so hair and blood evidence can be tested.
On Sunday, Cooper's legal claims were turned aside by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit. But Judge James R. Browning's dissenting opinion urged a stay of the execution so that attorneys for Cooper, who maintains his innocence, could pursue further legal avenues.
"There should be no hurry to execute Cooper," Browning wrote, adding that the hair and blood evidence from the scene should be reexamined. Cooper's attorneys have maintained that such evidence linking him to the crimes may have been planted or left by others who committed the murders.
The last execution in California was that of Stephen Anderson in 2002, when Schwarzenegger's predecessor, Gray Davis, refused to grant clemency.
The last California governor to grant clemency to a condemned murderer was Ronald Reagan, who in 1967 spared the life of a severely brain-damaged killer.
Cooper claims DNA evidence found at the scene, which matches his, was planted by authorities. He has repeatedly asked for renewed tests, but the courts have balked, saying there is no evidence of tampering and there is overwhelming evidence of Cooper's guilt.
Cooper maintains a trio of murderers committed the savage attacks, according to his attorney, David Alexander.
Cooper's attorneys also insisted they have new evidence in the case, producing a woman who said that on the night of the 1983 murders, she saw two men covered in blood at a bar near the scene of the killings.
About 100 death penalty opponents gathered Sunday near Schwarzenegger's home in Southern California, and hundreds planned a candlelight vigil outside the prison gates.
"This could be one of our biggest protests ever," said Lance Lindsay, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, a group that lobbies against the death penalty.
On Saturday, three of Cooper's jurors called for a stay of execution. They said blond hair found in the hands of one of the victims should be tested. The hair had not undergone DNA testing before the 1985 trial. Prosecutors believe the hair was that of the victim, sheared off as she was being hacked to death.
The mother of one of Cooper's victims, Mary Ann Hughes, dismissed the jurors' request.
"This is nothing new," she said. "It's stuff that has been looked at millions of times. This is just an example of the defense playing on the jurors emotions at the last minute."
Cooper, 46, was sentenced to death for the murders of Douglas and Peggy Ryen, both 41, their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, and Christopher Hughes, her 11-year-old friend.
The San Bernardino County victims were stabbed and hacked repeatedly with a hatchet and buck knife. The Ryens' 8-year-old son, Joshua, had his throat slit, but survived.
Joshua Ryen, now a construction worker, was awakened the night of the murder by screaming and was left unconscious with a slashed throat, two hatchet wounds and two stab wounds, his lawyer, Milt Silverman, told the Los Angeles Times for a story in Monday editions.
"Josh wakes up from the attack in the deathly still bedroom, where the stench of blood was nauseating," Silverman told the newspaper. "He put all four fingers in his neck to stop his bleeding while he was staring closely at his mother -- dead, and covered in blood. Josh laid there 11 hours."
Ryen hired Silverman after he and his grandmother expressed doubts that Cooper acted alone, but Silverman said his investigation left the survivor convinced that Cooper was the lone killer.
When the murders were committed, Cooper was on the run after escaping from prison, where he had been serving a four-year sentence for burglary. Authorities speculated his motive was to steal the family's station wagon. On the Net:
Death Penalty Information Center: www.deathpenaltyinfo.org
©2004 Associated Press