The horror began with a nighttime home invasion and the stabbings of a white family, and was compounded when sheriff’s deputies arrested and framed a black man for murder.
That’s my view, and now after 35 years, the wheels of justice in California may finally be creaking into motion. I last wrote about the case two months ago, and there’s a hopeful development: Gov. Jerry Brown seems to be moving toward allowing advanced DNA testing that may correct a gross injustice abetted by the police, prosecutors, judges, politicians and journalists.
This was a horrific crime, the 1983 Manson-style stabbing murders of Doug and Peggy Ryen, both 41; their 10-year-old daughter, Jessica; and an 11-year neighbor, Chris Hughes. The Ryens’ other child, Josh, had his throat slashed and was left for dead.
Josh, who was 8 at the time, initially identified several white people as the killers; multiple witnesses saw three white people after the attack in what was apparently the Ryens’ stolen car; and a woman reported to the police that her boyfriend, a white convicted murderer recently released from prison, appeared to have taken part in the crime. She gave sheriff’s deputies the bloody coveralls he had worn that night, and deputies threw them away.
Instead, deputies arrested Kevin Cooper, a 25-year-old black man, and when they couldn’t find his fingerprints or hairs linking him to the crime scene, they began to plant evidence — or so concluded five federal appeals judges. Cooper was sentenced to death after a trial tainted by open racism.
So Cooper has now spent more than 80 percent of his adult life behind bars for a brutal murder even though federal judges, law school deans, FBI veterans and a former president of the American Bar Association say he may well be innocent.
Yet California officials, including Brown and many others, refused to allow advanced DNA testing, even though Cooper’s lawyers would pay for it. I’ve written about Cooper’s case repeatedly for eight years, and finally in May I wrote what may be the longest column in New York Times history, a piece of visual journalism laying out the evidence that the San Bernardino County sheriff’s office framed Cooper and that Democratic and Republican politicians alike later blocked the DNA testing that could prove his innocence.
That seemed to break a dam. Pope Francis sent a letter through his representative to the governor. The Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle published editorials calling on Brown to allow the DNA testing. Sen. Dianne Feinstein backed testing, as did Sen. Kamala Harris, who told me she regretted that she had not allowed it when she was California’s attorney general. And Kim Kardashian fired off tweets.
Now, in a letter sent by an aide, Brown has asked Cooper’s lawyers practical questions about how to proceed: Which lab would do the testing, precisely which methods would be used, and would testing also be able to compare any DNA found to that of the white suspects believed by the defense to be the real perpetrators?
“The ball has moved forward by this letter, quite a bit,” said Norman Hile, who has worked pro bono defending Cooper for 14 years. “We’re certainly better off than we were. We’re encouraged that they’re considering testing and we think we can convince them to do it.”
One crucial piece of evidence to be tested is a T-shirt stained with the Ryens’ blood, because new “touch DNA” or “habitual wearer DNA” testing may establish who wore it. There are also hairs found in the victims’ hands that have yet to be tested — hairs that are blond or brown. An orange towel apparently used by the murderers has not been tested at all.
It has felt strange to me as a columnist, and it may feel peculiar to you as a reader, that I have devoted so much space over the years to the case of a single man awaiting execution, even if he is innocent. But this case is also a window into the much broader problem of an often dysfunctional criminal justice system that particularly oppresses the indigent.
At least 162 people on death row in the United States have been exonerated since 1973, and one academic study estimated that 4.1 percent of those on death row in the U.S. may be innocent. That suggests that about 115 people now awaiting execution nationwide were wrongfully convicted.
When people have been exonerated, science has been the savior — particularly DNA testing, cited by heroic lawyers and nonprofits — while the courts, politicians, law enforcement agencies and the news media have not (with some exceptions) been aggressive in righting these wrongs.
Is it possible that I’m mistaken about Cooper’s innocence? Of course.
So let’s test the evidence and find out before the state executes him. Thanks to all who spoke up, from the pope to Kardashian, and let’s hope that Brown proceeds soon with the advanced DNA testing. I’m betting that testing will not only free an innocent man but also lay bare police corruption and a criminal justice system that too often doesn’t have anything to do with justice.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service